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May I recommend my profession…

The mind is a city that grows more diverse and populous as we age, a more interesting place to kick back and put up your feet. Elder statesmen and retired prima ballerinas write memoirs, though few of us would shell out for the memories of someone under the age of fifty, no matter how famous. I am not famous, but having recently celebrated a milestone birthday, I thought it high time to examine the contents of a file marked “misc” that has sat on my computer desktop this past quarter century, a dead-letter box, a catchment, a dossier, made up of bits of genealogy, old family stories, narratives written fresh after the event they describe, letters to and from my sister.

These notes amounted to an impressive 100,000 words when pasted into a single document, about the size of one of my “big” novels. I was pleased that my mind city had matured into a destination spot whose paths and byways might lure a traveler or two. However, after performing my usual editorial magic, excising the dull bits, imposing chronology, filtering out the embarrassing parts, my chronicle, the summation of my seventy years on earth, numbered a paltry hundred pages or so, double-spaced. I do not expect Linda: A Memoir to become a bestseller, in fact, I would just as soon treat it like decaying plutonium, deemed safe only after everybody I know is dead.

Not that I haven’t lived a life worth setting down for others to read. I’ve had my share of adventure, and more than my share of husbands, some would say. But sticking to the facts bores me. One’s own memories are over-familiar to a brain ever seeking novelty. There’s no thrill like making stuff up. And, it’s cheaper than therapy. “Recurring themes” and “motifs” allow the novelist to refight all those battles she couldn’t win in real life.

Another reason I recommend novel-writing is for the status that comes with the world’s most desired profession, if we’re to believe Parade magazine, even beating out being president. In fact, Barack Obama said in his memoir (written when he was way younger than seventy!) that he might write a novel one day when he wasn’t so busy saving Western civilization. Want to bet he’s already got a manuscript in the bottom drawer? John Gresham assures us that all lawyers do, and Bill Clinton would prove his point. Bill is collaborating with James Patterson to write a political thriller, The President Is Missing.

In case you’re not familiar with literary genres, “thriller” falls within the capacious borders of the mystery genre, invented in the 1800’s by Edgar Allan Poe, or, if you’re British, by Wilkie Collins. Both sci-fi, Barack’s potential genre, and the thriller Bill will attempt, are forgiving genres. True aficionados will slog through the pulpiest pulp to find out whodunnit, a fact that is not lost on TV producers. Some truly terrible writers have made a good living writing mysteries, and some great writers have elevated the genre to literature, such as A Dark-Adapted Eye by the late Ruth Rendell.

Plotting a mystery exercises the cerebellum as well as the funny bone. The genre thinks nothing of sending in cartoon characters to solve a deadly crime. While we can’t all be Dave Barry, any one of us might invent the next Poirot.

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Of dog whistles and saber-tooth tigers

Is the human species devolving? Put another way, are we un-evolving, regressing to a more primitive form of life? I’ve been giving the question a lot of thought lately. Perhaps you know from an earlier post that I find Evolution to be a useful sorting box.

If you need a refresher, Evolution is the “theory” that every creature that ever flourished on this planet did so by specializing in some trait that gave them a leg up on the competition, made them faster, more agile, fiercer, or in our case, gave us greater intellectual capacity. Some animal specialties are so advanced that we humans can barely comprehend them. The ability of a soft-bodied creature to withstand the weight of the ocean. The night vision of bats and owls. The ability of geese and whales to find their way across vast tracts of sky or sea. The migration of a monarch butterfly that takes three generations to complete. Yet, as complex and mystifying as those skills, even greater is the human ability to think and reason. Humans specialized in brainpower. Homo sapiens literally means “wise man.”

One day an ancient relative stood upright on the savanna to look for saber-tooth tigers, and a few centuries later the human family walked upright, got the brain out of harm’s way, and focused eyes forward. Grunts came to stand for physical things and that led to language. Language did more to increase the complexity of our minds than almost anything else. We can see in the brain cases those early folks left behind that brains got bigger and bigger. So big, in fact, that modern humans often require the aid of a surgeon to make it into the world.

Humans did not become fast like the cheetah, agile like the house cat, or strong like the chimpanzee. We cannot fly—without the aid of a machine—and although we are fierce and war-like, our crowning achievement, that which defines our species, is intelligence, our ability to reason and think. Our nearest competition in the animal kingdom can’t hold a candle to the species that invented mathematics, gene splicing, and the can opener. We took dogs and cats along for company, but the smartest dog only scores about 33 on the Stanford-Binet, and cats won’t take the test at all. Dogs can’t write a sonata, or even appreciate one. A great ape, no matter how talented, can’t paint something you’d hang over the sofa.

Along with our intelligence, we humans evolved a constellation of other traits that work well with intelligence, the ability to take selfies, for example. We also developed a ravenous curiosity about ourselves, an obsessive fondness for testing to see how we’re doing. Because of the standardized testing of seventh-graders, not to mention the Nielson ratings, we’ve amassed tons of data that allow us to definitively answer the question of whether we continue to improve—evolve—as a species. The answer seems to be No!

Perhaps you’ve begun to suspect that this essay was inspired by Current Events, the fact that our fellow Americans just elected the stupidest man ever to the hold the highest office in the land. This has caused us to look askance at our neighbors and even some family members. Previously we didn’t have a word for such people, but language rose to the challenge and we now call them “deplorables,” which roughly translates to “caveman.” You’re probably as surprised as I am by their number, that there were enough of them to subvert the will of the majority of voters and install a president that sent many of us straight to our checkbooks to make a contribution to the ACLU. Suddenly we realized that a vast chasm had opened up at our feet and that half the country stood on one side, we on the other.

“The media” refers to this as “polarization,” as if both sides were equal, when, in fact, they’re not equal at all. Most obviously, deplorables can see no difference between reality and reality TV. Deplorables do not believe in science, evolution, or climate change. I needn’t point out that the contribution of a deplorable to the gene pool can only be a detriment to our species. Pretty soon dogs are going to be making us pick up their poop!

So why didn’t evolution save us from this ugly little twist in human affairs? If intelligence is the hallmark of our species, why is anti-intellectualism thriving? Why haven’t those people died out already? In my humble opinion, it’s because of the modern invention of the “safety net,” defined as a rope apparatus that spares deplorables the worst outcomes of their stupidity. People no longer starve to death just because they’re not crafty enough to capture dinner. Having not starved, they reproduce, and in numbers sufficient over time to elect a stupid person president.

We call this Freedom. Our country was founded on Freedom, and we’re captive to our own cleverness. We can buy guns and randomly shoot people. Watch porn and play electronic games till our eyeballs bleed. Shoot nasty stuff into our veins and create a vast underbelly of addiction and misery. Freedom is like a Bitcoin. You can spend it any way you want and the central banking authority can’t stop you.

It is a fact that the more education a female receives, the fewer children she will bear. Sensible, really, that she would think twice about giving birth to a creature that will suck up the best years of her life and make her miss out on that promotion at work. If she has a choice. In Japan, where women do have a choice, the government is having trouble convincing women to have children at all. Deplorables, of course, don’t want women to have a choice about their bodies or anything else.

During a presidential campaign that seemed to run on for the better part of my life, wily GOP operatives employed a secret weapon called a “dog whistle” that only deplorable ears could detect, promising to roll back all progress on women’s rights, as well as every other progressive legislation passed by the last administration, even the ones that specifically benefitted Deplorables.

I know. It’s called devolution.

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Typing 101

I start my day with a wellspring of words that somehow fill my brain overnight. Stimulated by morning coffee and newspapers, I approach my desk primed to put words in the mouths of characters, or if I’m lucky, produce a small jewel of an essay. I say lucky, because an essay can be finished in a day, while novel writing… takes longer. It was an essay by Garrison Keillor in today’s news that made me remember an episode from his personal story. Enamored with all things Scandinavian, he left his native land and moved to Norway. Back in the US he was considered a rustic intellectual, an original wit, a man who could fill a weekly radio spot with his own mellifluous voice and wry observations from Lake Woebegone. Transported and stripped of language, Garrison Keillor found himself being talked at as if he were a moron. Of course, even Norwegian morons can complete a sentence.

I always said that my own love affair with words erupted spontaneously, like wisdom teeth. My work as a property manager bored me. At my desk on the 8th floor of the 500,000 sf building I was supposed to be managing, I began scribbling out word combinations that gave me a peculiar satisfaction. The pad and paper went with me everywhere. There was a particular bottleneck on my drive to work that produced many a fine sentence.

When my secretary wasn’t on the “word processor”–our term for the first personal computer, a thing so bulky it had its own room–I would slip in and compose even longer chunks of verbiage. I loved seeing my sentences lit up on the computer screen, the letters made up of glowing green dots in those days. Eventually I quit my good-paying job to make no money at all and I was much happier. I never could get those monthly balance thingies. My staff gave me a Thesaurus and a box of pencils for a going-away present.

When I ventured beyond the academic world, white male managers who could not type were the norm. I got my first job in business because of my fast accurate typing, not to mention that I could correct my boss’s spelling errors, and improve his clumsy sentence structure. Ironically, my ability to type made me too valuable to send into the management program. There were only a few women managers at Gerald Hines at the time. To get ahead, I had to quit that job and go to a company run by a younger and more progressive man than Mr. Hines.

Back in high school, I took typing from Mrs. Minnie Jesson. I still remember the speed drills, the exact placement of fingers on the QWERTY keyboard, the typing book that formed its own stand, the towering manual typewriters built to withstand the abuse of adolescent hands, and how I asked for and got a Smith-Corona portable typewriter for Christmas that year. Typing class drew few boys. No one foresaw a time when the human population would carry tiny keyboards with them everywhere. A few years later I stood in front of my own classroom teaching reading and writing skills. Our inner-city junior high was outfitted with one typing classroom and I was asked to fill a 40-minute time slot. It was the only class I ever taught that no one asked why they had to take it.

Smith-Corona_Classic_12_Portable_Manual_Typewriter_Blue

Skip forward to my business years. Sometimes an obstreperous tenant required an exquisitely crafted letter. My bosses had always dictated theirs, or written them out in long-hand for me to type. As a boss myself, as a former typing and English teacher, I composed my letters on the computer and left them for my secretary to format and print. Back for a visit, I watched my old boss laboriously peck out an email with two fingers on the laptop that was now standard equipment on every executive desk. He probably felt like Garrison Keillor in the land of smart Norwegians.

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Small-town characters

The library in our two-room schoolhouse in Ethel, Oklahoma was a single shelf. Our teacher, beautiful Mrs. Jimmie Taylor, taught six grades and was sometimes spread a little thin. While waiting my turn for her attention, I read straight across that shelf, and Mrs. Taylor brought me more books from her own home. Our country school closed and I rode the bus into town to a bigger school, to a library composed of more shelves. I still remember those titles and authors, the genres that passed in and out of my favor.

My novels, whether set in Galveston, Houston, or Johns Valley, Oklahoma (a fictional place) are peopled with characters both real and imagined. A classmate wrote me once, “I know all these people.” Indeed, I know them, too. I hope the characters who inhabit Death In The Stacks strike a familiar chord with you.  Below is an excerpt featuring one of my dearest creations, Buck Weathers. If you’ve read earlier blogposts, you’ll recognize that Buck shares two traits I first observed in my own father, his love of good shoe leather and a soft heart for the underdog.

Buck Weathers and the junior high prank that went wrong (from Death In The Stacks)

Although Buck had won this round, life had taught him to distrust fun that came at another’s expense, even if that someone had cost him the family farm. He had always loved a good joke, early in life practicing startlement on barnyard cats, graduating to tormenting his older sister till she threatened to brain him with her twirling baton.

Young Buck reached the eighth grade as ready for a good prank as the next boy. The Weathers weren’t wealthy back then. In fact, like all families who make their living off the land, they worked hard, and even the kids had chores. Still, they were better off than many of their neighbors, considerably better off than some. His bus route ran through a remote valley where shivering kids waited in the cold and dark to be transported not only into town, but into a new century. There were kids in Buck’s class who smelled bad in winter because indoor plumbing was non-existent in their home, or so shoddy it froze up in winter. Once, a teacher made a kid move away from the floor register because he was stinking up the whole classroom. But the Weathers had instilled in their kids the notion that it was unchristian to draw attention to how much better off you were than other people, bad manners to point out when you got something new.

Besides a bent for mischief, Buck had another weakness. He loved fine boots and was particularly proud of a pair of Luccheses he got in Fort Worth when his dad took him to the stock show. He had a right to be proud of those boots. He had earned the money himself. In shop class he made a boot rack that would hold a dozen pairs, and he bragged to his sister that he would own a hundred pairs someday. She said that a person could only wear one pair at a time.

One day Buck and his best buddy John Beaver succumbed to an adolescent compulsion to pull an elaborate prank. Leaving shop class with a can of fast-drying adhesive, they skipped their next class and snuck into the boy’s locker room where they proceeded to glue every shoe to the floor. They were just sorry they couldn’t be there to see boys trying to walk away in those shoes. It would be hilarious!

Only, it wasn’t. One of their victims got on the bus that evening with his sole flapping. He had ripped his shoe apart trying to free it. Everybody on the bus laughed, but Buck could see that the kid, one of the poor kids who lived back in the valley, didn’t think it was funny at all. Probably the only pair of street shoes the boy owned, and Buck had ruined them. When he and his sister got off at their stop, he let her get way ahead of him while he replayed the scene in the locker room as he and John Beaver, suppressing giggles and working fast, smeared industrial strength glue on the soles of their classmates’ shoes. The locker room reeked with the fumes. How had they not seen the consequences of their act?

When Buck got home, his mother looked up from the ironing board and didn’t say anything. It crossed his mind that she might’ve heard something. He went to his room and sat down on the bed. His face felt hot and red. He couldn’t stand how squirmy he felt inside. Even if he and John Beaver got away with it, he would have to see that kid tomorrow in patched shoes. Or maybe the kid wouldn’t get on the bus at all. Maybe Buck had ended that boy’s education. He heaved a sigh. There was only one thing to do. He opened his closet and took down the Luccheses from their place of honor and went outside to find his father.

“Daddy, I did something bad today and now I gotta pay for it.”

His father was watching a colt cavort around its mother in the paddock. He reached in his shirt pocket for a cigarette and got it going, blew out a thin spiral of smoke. That was his way of giving himself time to think, to weigh the consequences of words before he spoke them. There was so much Buck had to learn.

“Well, son, I was hoping you would own up to it. Are you sure you want to make things right with that pair?”

“Yes, sir. It’s gotta be these.”

“Get in the truck. I’ll run you up there.”

And so he handed over the beautiful pair of boots to the kid who might’ve owned just one pair of shoes to his name and told to make them last. There were other penalties–school-related–but none hurt as bad as seeing that kid in his ripped shoes. With his finest pair gone, the boot collection lost its importance in Buck’s life. His feet grew anyway. And his sister was right. You could only wear one pair of boots at a time.

Today, Buck Weathers owned two pairs of handmade Texas boots. Beautiful things, both. He loved the smell of leather when he pulled them off his feet. Every few years one of them needed a new half-sole. He got ‘em polished every time he had to fly, which wasn’t often. But when he did, when he was sitting up high there in the airport watching an old black man polish his boots, he thought about those Luccheses and the lesson they imparted.

 

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Universality and the new food movement

‘Tis the season to think about, write about, stand in the kitchen and make… food. So timely that my niece Kima Cargill’s new book about food landed on my Kindle this week. In addition, I just read Megan Kimble’s piece describing her year eating unprocessed foods. These two young women are riding (or writing) the crest of a tsunami on the subject of how we consume and how it’s killing the planet, not to mention ourselves. And so I thought about my own thinking about consumerism, fresh from a holiday season in which I’ve been bombarded with ads urging me to spend more, eat more, drink more.

These writers are preaching to the choir as far as I’m concerned. I’ve always thought our economic model is crazy. Every week when I sort the recycles and throw out perfectly good glass jars that will be hauled off, melted down, remanufactured into more glass jars, I’m outraged by the senselessness of it all. Back when George Bush was running the economy, the country was in dire trouble (although I didn’t personally know anybody who was starving). The brilliant economists who worked for George suggested sending every American a check, not to save, but to spend. This was known as a “boost to the economy.” The leader of the free world said, in effect, go out and buy something you don’t need. It’s our only salvation.

But back to food. As true as it is that I don’t know any starving people, I also don’t know anybody (or not many) who cook. Yeah, I move in an older crowd these days. Most of my friends raised kids and fed a family, and they’ve had it with the meal planning already. It shocks me to see what people have in their grocery carts, to know that a friend of mine ate at a fried chicken place, or to hear another say that the front burners of her stove don’t work, but it doesn’t matter because she doesn’t cook.

Taking a right angle turn here, let’s talk about universality. (My mind is sharp as a tack today… ) I used to attend a new age church. I liked it because you didn’t have to believe in anything. I actually traveled to the source of this religion when my then-husband was accepted into their ministerial program. They say never visit the sausage factory, right? I discovered that in controlled doses, this particular sect was palatable, but taken full-strength, the same old something that has kept my head wonderfully free of dogma all these years gagged me. (It’s a food metaphor, okay?) Here’s why.

These well-meaning folks, originally concentrated in the Kansas City area, and now spread all over the place, actually do promote a certain theology, embodied in magical numbers, the Five Somethings, The Twelve Somethings. They have classes so you can learn all this stuff. There are bookstores in every church (they call them “centers”). I took a few classes and learned that a central tenet is that people bring about their own reality, “thoughts held in mind reproduce in kind.” I can buy that. Pollyannas are cheery. Sad Sacks are miserable. But as is our wont (an English major word meaning “habit”), we humans are always improving things. (See my eloquent piece on extremism). A simple slogan meant to get people to take a look at their negative thinking, over time, has crystallized into its own kind of dogma.

This came home to me when a young woman from Austin we had befriended, because we were, like, also from Texas, told us she had just gotten a very bad diagnosis, a cancer that would kill her in a matter of months. We drove her to a few radiation treatments and she mentioned that some of the seminarians had asked her what thoughts she held in mind to bring about this terrible illness.

From this and other bits and pieces, I’ve cobbled together my own religion, bullshit detector, yardstick, whatever you want to call it. If you see a list of Truths tacked up on a wall and it seems to fit the circumstances of your life very nicely, ask yourself how well they apply to a poor child in India. What about when that child is older, an adult? Are fourth and fifth generation impoverished Americans to blame for their habits of mind? How they eat? Or are they just muddling along doing the best they can with what they have to work with?

I was a 21-year-old teacher assigned my first classroom in a Houston inner-city school. Like all females, I thought I was over-weight (ha!). We were all reading this new book about how you could eat fat, fat, and more fat, and actually lose weight. It was revolutionary. I started packing in the cheese, steaks, butter, and maybe I did lose a few pounds, I don’t remember, because I gained it back faster than you can say Nutella. It turned out to be the first of many empty diet promises. One day a little fat girl in my eighth grade English class heard me talking about my new diet and wistfully asked for details. Very simple, I told her, jotting down a list. Just eat these foods, and avoid those. Sometime later I asked how she was doing and she said, my dad says we can’t afford to buy those foods. I was jolted into an awareness that mine, compared to hers, was a privileged life. Even on a first-year teacher’s salary I could afford to eat better than she could.

You didn’t think I could do it, did you? Link food, religion, consumerism, and universality into a single essay.

Ms. Kimble set out to eat for a whole year as wholesomely as possible, organic, farm-to-table, farmer’s market produce, vegetable co-op. She indicts the food industry and agribusiness for the wretchedness of the American diet, and I couldn’t agree more. It’s the theme of Kima’s book too. Megan mentions the cost of eating high quality food, $4.50/meal on average (cooked at home using the standards mentioned above). Compare that to the cost of a meal using, say, food purchased at WalMart, $1.50/meal, which is approximately what SNAP (food stamps) allows low-income people. And there, as my fellow writer Mr. Shakespeare said, is the rub.

Whether it was a fad diet of the 70’s or a trendy new whole food movement today, if poor people can’t afford it, it’s an unworkable plan for curing hell-bent consumerism, obesity, or the horror known as the American diet. The last time I checked (this morning), there were 7.3 billion consumers on the planet, quite a few of them poor. And they all have to eat. Every single day.

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A Texas Christmas

Thinking about my father this holiday season. He and I have our birthdays in December. He would have been ninety this year. After his funeral in 1999, I wrote a piece to tuck away in my memoirs, excerpted here:

My parents were grossly incompatible and had the good sense to divorce after only a few years. Daddy’s second marriage ended with the death of his wife and after that he lived alone, more comfortable without a woman around setting standards. He could spend his retirement lying on the couch in a super-chilled living room watching and re-watching his collection of old Western movies.

Ill health brought a woman into his life, a nurse named Wanda, who got him to write her several large checks before his myocardial infarction.  I never met her–she didn’t stick around for the funeral—but when we went for the viewing, there was a red rose in his hand and a card that read, “I love you, Wanda.” As far as I know he’s still clutching that rose, lying there in his chilled mausoleum drawer next to his long-dead wife.

My father owned two pairs of footwear, cowboy boots, his old ones and his new ones. He was buried in his jeans and a Western shirt that snapped shut. He revered John Wayne, tales of the Old West, and believed in a mythic Texas. He played the guitar and mandolin. He was sentimental about women and children, and he could remember hundreds of bad jokes he picked up from his days driving an 18-wheeler across the nation’s highways, though mostly between the Port of Houston and Lubbock.

Every Christmas season when I listen to John Henry Faulk’s “Christmas Story,” I hear my father’s voice and I bawl my eyes out.

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Power of the pen

When I was fifteen, an English teacher assigned me a persuasive essay for our class newspaper The Goldbug. Identify a problem and suggest a solution, he said. We were both new, me and that young teacher, he a recent graduate, me sent to live with relatives by a dysfunctional mother. I’m sure that my second cousin never imagined, when she came home for Christmas that year, that her domestic life was about to be upended. My stay would last for only a semester; Mr. Kinion may have spent his career there. Neither of us anticipated the amplified effect of controversy in a small insular society.

But to understand this story, you must picture the setting. Writers with a deeper connection and greater affinity for the American heartland, breadbasket to the world, have set the scene. The small agricultural community of Fowler, Kansas is thirty-five miles from Dodge City, set among rolling fields in various stages of wheat production. The winter I was there, the arrow-straight highway ran through miles of stubble. The only thing that slowed a brisk Canadian wind was long rows of Osage orange whose compound trunks obligingly tangled with their neighbors to form a windbreak.

Fowler

Because of their isolation, the community made its own fun. One morning a carload of kids showed up and kidnaped me for a come-as-you-are pancake breakfast. On Saturday nights there was dancing at Teen Town. There were sock hops, basketball games, speech tournaments, a Sadie Hawkins dance, and since I was the new girl, apparently the only one they had ever had, I was wildly popular with the boys. At least until we got out the next issue of The Goldbug.

And so I looked around for a problem in need of a solution. The previous term my mother had sent me to Lubbock to live with Daddy and I attended a large urban school that dealt with juvenile turf wars by imposing something called The Demerit System. For every variety of infraction there was a predetermined penalty. Chewing gum in class might get you a single demerit. Skipping class would get you five. Ten demerits got you expelled.

In my Kansas classroom, I noticed a culture that placed student and teacher on a more equal footing than I was used to, maybe because boys went off to wheat harvest every summer and made more money than their teachers.  One day the algebra teacher got so exasperated with a kid on the back row that she flung her textbook at him. He ducked, laughed, and class went on. Well, at Tom S. Lubbock, he would’ve gotten ten demerits then and there!

So I decided to propose The Demerit System for Fowler High School. Had Peter Kinion not been so green, he might have counseled me to take a softer tone, or to prescribe the Dewey Decimal System instead.  But he didn’t, and my persuasive essay was duly published. That’s when I learned the power of the pen.

In biology class, a live frog replaced my pickled one on the dissecting tray. My scream was counted as disruption and the principal, a mean-spirited little man named Mr. Sapp, wondered how many demerits I deserved. I sat there in tears, dethroned from my new girl status. The tough girl in school offered to beat my brains out. That Saturday night not a single boy asked me to Teen Town. But worst of all was the silence. Maybe they had held a secret meeting in the gym and voted to never speak to me again. For days I walked the hallways invisible to my classmates. Even my best friend Janie wouldn’t meet my eye. The family who didn’t want me living with them in the first place turned noticeably colder. I had bitten the hand that fed me.

The semester wound down. I was almost glad to go back to my own horrible family. After my second cousin packed me up and moved me out of her house, I never heard from her again. I found her on Facebook recently but she didn’t accept my friend request. I feel certain that if I were to return to the scene of my crime, word would get out via their mysterious and secret small-town network and I would find out they’re still mad at me. I’m sorry, Fowler, Kansas. Didn’t you realize that I loved you?

studentreporter

The author, sophomore year, wielding the power of the pen.

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Going to extremes

Humans once argued about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Once we wore ourselves out on that one, we moved on to the larger question of just where we fit into the scheme of things. Were we God’s crowning achievement, a lower form of angels, perhaps, or just another animal that evolved on planet Earth?

As we know, that latter question was settled by Charles Darwin, who worked out that we’re not divine at all, merely the smarter cousin of apes. People are still muttering about this. Having assumed our place in the natural order, we made a case for our specialness. Every creature has an attribute that helps it capture prey and stay one step ahead of its predators. What was our special or unique gift? Could we define “human” in a way that put us in our own special class of animal?

When I was in school a hundred years ago, the yardstick that defined humanness was whether or not one used tools. Personally, I have never used tools, but a lot of people (men mostly) thought that tool use defined us as a species. Then somebody, I forget just who, filmed wild chimps purposely shaping sticks to pull ants out of mounds, and we were forced to concede that tool-use was possibly not the exclusive bailiwick of humans.

As we formulated new definitions for what it means to be human, one wily creature after another squeaked past the goal posts. And since those early days of nature photography, PBS has served up a steady and humbling diet of proof that animals do all sorts of things we thought only humans could do. They devise and use tools, communicate with one another, solve puzzles involving a series of logical steps, recognize themselves in mirrors, create art, speak to us with sign language, even operate computers if you make it worth their while. Yes, and animals ride bicycles, star in their own TV series, and make you laugh on YouTube. Newsflash:  Pigeons read mammograms! [ http://www.newsweek.com/researchers-train-pigeon-pathologists-read-mammograms-396534 ] There goes another darn definition!

pigeon

So, is there anything that delineates us from the apes, exempts us from the ignominy of taxonomy? I say yes! Two things, actually. We humans amass stuff and we go to extremes.

While not freeing us from the animal kingdom, the fact that we amass stuff explains how we’ve been able to leap-frog forward in evolutionary terms while other creatures have hardly changed at all from years and years ago.

Before you point out that sea polyps amass coral reefs big enough to be seen from space, and beavers amass, pack rats amass, even ants amass stuff, they don’t do it on a scale to place them among the firmament of angels. We dig up humongous amounts of dirt, from which we extract, refine, concentrate, distill, frack, purify, plenty enough to distinguish us from any species, especially apes, who won’t even bother to keep up with their sharpened sticks. But I’m not talking about the material we dig up from the earth. I’m talking about information. We humans amass information, and we go to extremes doing it. In fact, new words had to be invented to describe these extremes, words like “terabyte.”

Allow me to sketch a brief and painless history of how our preoccupation with amassing information came about.  Early humans figured out a way to pass along to the next generation the hard-won knowledge of their tribe. They did this by inventing writing. Using their sharpened sticks to scratch out a shape in dried mud, they declared that this symbol stood for “saber-toothed tiger.” It was only a matter of time before we had word processors and texting. After that came sexting, of course, but we’ll talk about that another time.

Prior to writing, humans had to carry around everything they knew in their heads. Their kids had to spend their childhoods memorizing this stuff so they could carry it around in their heads and pass it on to their children. Youngsters today will hardly know what I mean by “memorizing,” because today we don’t even have to remember phone numbers. But it turned out that having to remember stuff was good for “early man” because it focused human evolutionary development on the brain. Rather than becoming faster or stronger, or able to digest woody fibers, we got smarter and smarter. Your 21st century model human being can think circles around dumb beasts such as cats and dogs, who didn’t even develop a sense of humor.

And for a long time the oral tradition served us well. But memorizing has its limitations. You dare not stray far from the known. Get it wrong, and you risk becoming somebody’s next meal. We know from digging up places that many ancient civilizations died out because they kept doing the same thing over and over, one generation repeating exactly what the previous one did, until eventually something came along that demanded a response their father had not made them memorize. Say, the planet got a few degrees warmer.

Writing allowed us to set down on paper things that future humans didn’t have to learn through trial and error. Children, no longer bound by only as much as their father could remember (my father could remember hundreds of bad jokes), were ahead of the game. Starting out on the level above the one achieved by the last generation turbocharged evolution for our species and led to the creation of a shared brain, the Internet.

Nowadays we don’t have to remember the past. You can Google it. Nor do we have to know much, especially if we’re a GOP presidential candidate. Yet even as 7.2 billion of us cover the earth, the individual has never had more power. Consider how a single alienated young man can find others like himself online and plan mass murder.

Reading history makes it clear that civilizations that carried their peculiar fixations to extremes, whether piling rocks on top of one another, or cutting down every tree on the island to grease the skids of a stone god, led to a bad end. Extremism is the place you end up when you push the envelope too far. (I feel a cross-stitched sampler coming on.)

But I’m not sure we have any choice in the matter. It may be what makes us human. Going to extremes is a by-product of specialization. Here is “scientific proof” of my thesis:

  • Young athletes striving to eke out a nanosecond (another new word!) over the previous record has led to spectacular achievement in sports, but also to extreme sports. Does it improve our chances of survival as a species that some of us jump off mountains wearing little more than a baggy windbreaker?
  • Today’s “reality” shows had their genesis in Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour. I think you’ll agree programming is edging toward the extreme if you check out the latest episode of America’s Got Talent.
  • Snack chips used to come as either potato or corn. Now Frito-Lay’s website guides you through 115 varieties. I think it’s very telling that one section is labeled “extreme flavors.” We can only hope this trend leads to extinction! And soon, while I can still get into my pants.
  • In the world of fashion, beautiful women once glided along the runway modeling the latest haute couture designs. Coco and Yves are dead. This year’s Paris Fashion Week presented a dystopian version of itself, skeletal creatures stalking the catwalk, outfitted in styles that made headlines, not because of their beauty, but their weirdness. When human beings can no longer figure out which is front and which is back, extinction can’t be far behind.
  • In fine arts, Leonardo was concerned with depicting, as faithfully and beautifully as possible, the human body as light played over its planes and surfaces. Cameras came along and took over his job. Artists, being creative sorts, took Art in a new direction, making things that even today cause gallery visitors to exclaim: “I could do that!”
  • Early novels were equally wedded to reality, but readers today needn’t confine themselves to the merely possible. Fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, romance, and dozens of other genres offer a specialized reading experience. Some critics think that novels committed suicide by pushing the envelope to extremism.
  • With the death of the Really Good Novel, novelists themselves took off for Hollywood and began writing fiction for the movies. That art form, too, is beginning to give off the tell-tale light of pre-extinction brilliance.

You can probably think of your own examples of things that started life as revolutionary, beautiful, useful, or transformative. And you can recall the trajectory of its history as it changed beyond all recognition in subsequent “improved” versions.

We speak of the evolution of information technology as if the wires and tubes that constitute the Internet took over the function of evolving in our stead. Adam passes the baton to atom. We dimly understand that increased computing power has shortened the computer’s evolutionary cycle and that things they are a’changing very fast indeed. We wonder if humans are even in charge any more. We’re carried along by our devices, helpless without them. Wisps of nostalgia waft in the air, as if we didn’t quite get enough of something before it went away, vinyl records, a movie shot in black and white, bell-bottomed pants.

Writing brought us to the digital age. And as we are wont to do, we amass information with the same obsession that Egyptians once mummified cats and the Chinese fired clay warriors. Progress was slow at first, but now next generations come along so fast your neck snaps.

Perfection is not a plateau; it’s a slope. You have no way of knowing when you’re there, or if one more step will take you over a cliff into oblivion. If digging up stuff has taught us anything, it’s that animals that got too specialized for their britches ended up in trouble. Put too much vital energy into big horns, beaks, or eating one kind of food, you might not be around to teach the next generation about saber-toothed tigers.

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I Hate My Toothbrush

I HATE MY TOOTHBRUSH and other cutting-edge devices….

I just brushed my teeth and I feel a rant coming on. I’ve heard a number of you complain about this very subject (one, actually) so I know I’m not the only one who misses the “good ol’ days” when a toothbrush was just a small brush used for cleaning the teeth. We had a different color for each family member, the brushes hanging out chummily in the communal mug. Surely you remember.

Evolve forward several generations and consider the sexy curvilinear multi-color object your oral hygienist hands you after your cleaning, a device that is clearly more closely related to a Formula One race car than with yesteryear’s humble toothbrush. There are cunning little side prongs to massage your gums while you brush. Each tuft is sculpted, not just cut flat straight across. And the bristles change color over time so you can tell when to get a new brush. Apparently there is no other way.

Let’s talk about the handle. Two, maybe three brilliant colors. Curvy? God, yes. Molded to the grip of an NFL linebacker. Don’t want to lose that sucker while you’re working over the gums. And scaled to the size of that man’s hand too.

I happen to have a smallish mouth. Fitting all that plastic into my mouth is a challenge. So is hanging on to the device with my smallish hand. I’ve had the thing roll on me. Every time I brush my teeth, I risk putting out an eye. After maneuvering brush and high-tech gel into my oral cavity, there’s no room to move the bristles up and down. At best, I can only mouth it for a while, rinse and spit.

toothbrush

Just buy a plain one, you say? Obviously you haven’t been to Target’s toothbrush department lately. Thousands of brushes, none of them what you’d call low-tech. Buying a plain toothbrush is about as easy as buying a plain disposable razor. I just want to remove the stubble from my calves. I don’t need five blades to do it. Again with the colors and curvy handles!

I know. I might as well try to turn back the “hands” of the clock. God knows how to do that. Every six months when the time “changes” I puzzle through the process of setting all the digital clocks in the house. Why does the microwave need to know what time it is? And it’s pretty insistent about getting that information, too.

People, we’ve been sold a lie! We do not need our devices to get higher and higher-tech every time we turn around. Human intelligence is not evolving at the same pace as our devices. I can no longer operate the car. Telephones, forget about it. I can’t remember in time how to answer the phone before the caller gives up. Swipe first, then put in the password? Password? OMG!

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A Curmudgeon’s Lament

I’m not a happy camper. I’m not even a good sport. I’m at the high end of high-maintenance. Others accept the rigors of travel and inconveniences of life with a stiff upper lip. Not me.  I hate discomfort and place no value in stoicism. Once I was with some hikers cast onto an island with a seriously out-of-scale map. We ate our picnic at the first bend in the road, thinking that around the next bend we would find the boat waiting to take us back to the mainland. Four hours later we met a group coming from the other direction and, comparing notes, discovered to our mutual horror, that we had all traveled about the same distance. The sun was getting low in the sky when we finally arrived at the pier. Other groups had somehow found the energy to finish not only our trail but several others as well. I hate them.

I wish I could say that I stayed positive and optimistic for my fellow travelers that afternoon. I wanted water. I wanted more lunch. I wanted different shoes. I wanted to call a taxi. And I would have, had there been cell service on the island. Or taxis. My companions put more and more distance between us. I forgive them because they carried the empty picnic hamper.

I could give you other examples. One that springs to mind was a recent flight into Austin the night of the big storm. You know the storm I mean. It brought Lester Holt and NBC News to the shores of the Blanco River and caused classmates I hadn’t heard from in 40 years to call to see if I was all right. No, I wasn’t all right. I nearly died in a plane crash. I was the only one on the plane who realized the danger we were in and had the sense to scream about it.

I don’t know how people learn the skill of being a non-complainer, silent about their fears and non-complaining about their discomforts. I inherited complaining on my maternal side. My mother spent her later years minutely calibrating her comfort. I’m on track to be just like her. Near to hand: tissues, floss, lip gloss, nail file, paper and pencil, passwords, gum, iced tea, a candy or two. I can’t go on vacation without serious packing. No spur of the moment, devil-may-care adventuring for me.

After my neighbor discovered a rattlesnake in her entryway, I look under my patio chair before sitting down. I hate and dread ringing phones, doorbells, and going to the mailbox. I’m sure there will be a letter from the IRS.

You wouldn’t think, to look at me, that I carry more than my share of fear and dread. I appear to have a sunny disposition, to be someone who welcomes novelty, invitations. New acquaintances take me at face value and are surprised when I don’t want to go hear live music. They shake their heads in disbelief when they learn that I don’t like driving after dark, or riding with a driver who has consumed more than a glass of wine. And why won’t I dip my body in a pool full of other people’s germs? Or watch any kind of sporting event you can name?

I know I should be embarrassed about myself, that I should strive to get over my distrust of small children and dogs. I should not love to such a degree my new  leather lounge chair with the motor mechanism. I’ll be sorry someday that I’m not out ruining my knees pounding the jogging trail, not at the fitness center right this minute doing weight-bearing exercises. Truly, sometimes I feel like the last sane person on earth.

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