The Madness of Consumerism

September 9, 2014

For the last couple of months, I’ve been reading Civilization: A New History of the Western World by Roger Osborne. I can’t really recommend it. The author sees Western Civilization as flawed, but still capable of being repaired, albeit with some difficulty, whereas I see its flaws as being so fundamental that to fix them, which we must, is to create an entirely different animal. In any case, every now and then I find an interesting nugget. To wit:

Strange as it may seem to us, the underlying concern of American capitalism in the late nineteenth century was the possibility of sufficiency. Just as Marx had envisaged a world where everyone would have enough for a decent life, American capitalists were worried that people would stop buying their goods once they had enough things to live comfortably. There seemed no obvious reason why someone would replace a piece of furniture or a coat or a set of crockery simply because it was old. This problem was solved in large part through the influence of Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, and principal promoter of his ideas in America. Bernays was intrigued by Freud’s view that people are bundles of emotion, passion and desire, and that the real motive for human action is the satisfaction of deep-seated desires rather than rational calculation. Bernays saw that American companies needed to transform the way that people thought about their purchases, so that they would forget about trying to fill their rational needs and instead aim to fulfill their desires. In the 1920s, consumerism, or consumptionism as it was then called, was born. Calvin Coolidge declared that an “American’s importance to his country is not as a citizen but as a consumer.” Rather than selling goods to its customers, the advertising industry began to sell happiness.

… Bernays, and his clients in American corporations found themselves in agreement with Freud’s view that democracy carried serious risks and should be discouraged. Other commentators such as Walter Lippman, the most influential columnist in America in the 1930s and 1940s, came to agree that democracy was an inappropriate way of governing such a complex country, and that the masses needed an elite to guide them…

… In 1928 President Hoover reinforced Coolidge’s sentiment and said that people were “constantly moving happiness machines.” Just as Freud had suggested that if our selfish desires are satisfied we feel docile and happy, and if they are thwarted we feel aggrieved, Hoover understood that when people are fulfilling their desires they are not inclined to be politically active.

Americans showed that if products were sold to them in the right way, they would buy and buy and that consumerism would make them politically conservative.

That’s about as bald as it gets, isn’t it? And it is what has come to pass. There was a brief effort in the 1960s to stop it. But since then people have enthusiastically taken up the role of “consumer” again. The philosophies I study and believe in say that pursuing the satisfaction of one’s superficial desires can never truly satisfy. It merely leads to more desire and, ultimately, madness. I think that’s obvious. You don’t need to read any philosophy to understand that. A little real-life experience will do. Yet here are all these captains of industry pursuing this mad course and accusing those who don’t agree of being evil fools. We’re over a hundred years into it now and it has grown to massive levels. You never see any other point of view represented. No one advocates at the national level for living a simpler, less materialistic life. I’ve been reading about the feverish expectations for the new iPhone that’s supposed to be announced today, and it’s crazy. I still don’t have a cell phone, and I do just fine. I’ve never wanted one. But I’ve been reading commentators who fear what might happen if the new gadget doesn’t meet expectations. They warn that there could be real trouble. Every year at Christmas you see articles about how Christmas sales are doing and what it means for our well-being. Are we spending enough? We have to get out of this mindset. It has to be exposed for what it is. I think that if we don’t, reality will force a change on us. Wouldn’t it be better to do it gracefully?

More on My Visit with Mother

September 3, 2014

There’s a short piece near the end of my book The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill where I go for a swim in San Francisco Bay and then join the South End Rowing Club. The piece was intended to symbolize my finally arriving in San Francisco after living here for more than 20 years, yet always feeling that I was just passing through. At the time I wrote that, it felt like a bit of a stretch, and it may still be. But I have gotten more into swimming this year. The water temperature in the bay has been unusually warm this year — probably not a good sign, although swimmers love it. (All the starfish have disappeared. All of them.) In the past the temp has rarely gotten above 63 degrees, but this year it has hit 66 degrees consistently, and occasionally even higher.

The South End Rowing Club was founded in 1873. It’s old blue-collar San Francisco—not fancy or expensive. The name is deceptive. Not only is the club at the north end of San Francisco, it caters mostly to swimmers. Originally, the club was at the south end of the city and catered to rowers. At some point, they moved the entire building from its original location to Aquatic Park. If you’ve ever been to the Hyde Street Pier near Fisherman’s Wharf or visited the old sailing ship the Balclutha, you’ve seen the club building. It sits on the beach of a protected cove. Most club swimmers never get out of the cove, and up until now, I’ve been one of those. My wife Judy on the other hand does the Alcatraz swim almost every year. Before I met her, I couldn’t swim—not properly at least. She taught me how to do “the crawl,” but I’ve never felt strong enough to do any out-of-the-cove swims. They’re a little scary. If you get into trouble, you’re way out in the bay, far from land. The club out-of-cove swims are done in groups and have pilots in boats, but it’s still a little intimidating for a weak swimmer. (Contrary to myth, there are no dangerous sharks in the bay.) There is one club swim, the Coghlan Beach Swim, that I’ve always sworn I’d do if all my conditions were met: They had to do it during the summer or fall when the water was warmer, it had to be non-competitive, and I had to have plenty of company. This year the club put together a special Coghlan Beach swim for newbies. So I started training.

Coghlan_Beach

Coghlan Beach with Alcatraz to the right in the background

The beach, named after an old time South End swimmer, Frank Coghlan, is a small spit of sand that has gathered against an artificial breakwater a mile west of the club. They drive you to the beach in a car and then all you have to do is swim out into the bay 20 yards or so, which puts you right out in the current. But it’s not as though you don’t have to do anything. If all you did was float, it would take you a long time to get back to the club. The morning of the swim, conditions were perfect. There was a strong flood tide, and the air was warm, but the sky overcast. People told me that on sunny mornings the sun can blind you. Judy swam with me and I had my own pilot in a row boat, a friend, David Kennedy. I’d expected to be at least a little nervous, but I wasn’t at all. It was fun watching the city float by, and, as I say, I was busy stroking, too busy to feel any anxiety. One technique I used to ease my fears was to look at my watch when my arm was underwater. I’d trained on up to a 53 minute swim, and I could see that I was going to get in earlier than that. The water looks and feels silky right now—deliciously so.

The Pier and the Opening

1) Alcatraz 2) The Pier 3) The Opening to the Cove

Just before the cove is a long pier, and the current really picks up when you get there. It was astonishing to see how fast we were flying past the pylons.

The Opening between Muni Pier and the Breakwater

The Opening between Muni Pier and the Breakwater

At the opening to the cove, I swam through and started making my way to the club beach. It took me 38 minutes to complete. I wasn’t tired at all. Actually, I wanted to do it again.

The South End Rowing Club Building

The South End Rowing Club Building

 

The Beach with the Opening in the background

The Beach with the Opening (1) in the background

It was good to have something take my mind off my obsession with my book for a while. I’ve never pictured myself trying it, but I now see swimming from Alcatraz as a real possibility. Judy will make sure I’m ready and get through it okay. Not this year, though.

I feel a little odd talking about my personal enjoyment at a time when the world seems to be heading straight to hell. I find the news hideous reading these days. But it is reality, and we do have to deal with it. I don’t see anyone saying what I think needs to be said, so I’ll be heading back in the direction of religion and politics soon enough. Meanwhile, back to the book.

Into the Arms of Mother

August 24, 2014
The starting point of the swim, with the finish line on the horizon.

The starting point of the swim, with the finish line on the horizon.

I successfully completed my swim this morning. 38 minutes. It wasn’t all that hard, but I feel wasted now. In a couple of days, I’m leaving for a week in LA and will write about the swim when I get back. (Judy’s new film Pelican Dreams is going to be released into theaters this fall, and we have to do some work on it down there.) I love open-water swimming. I couldn’t do the crawl before I met Judy. Now, I’m okay at it. Slow, though. I was able to do the 1.2 miles in 38 minutes because we swam it on a flood tide. It was astonishing how fast we were moving along the city shoreline. Fun to watch.

Staying in Contact with Mother

August 22, 2014

Baby Parrot

Baby Cherry-headed Conure

I still get called in every now and then to deal with the parrots. This morning someone telephoned to say that he had a parrot in a bush outside his front door, that it had been there for several hours without moving. He lived just up the street, so I put aside work on the book and headed over with a towel and a small travel cage that I use for emergencies. I was expecting to find a sick adult, or maybe a bird that had crashed into a window. To my surprise, it was a brand new baby. I’d never seen one out of the nest earlier than August 31st, and usually I didn’t start seeing them until early September. So this one was at least nine days ahead of schedule. Parrots rarely go so low to the ground, so he had to have been in some kind of trouble. When I walked toward him, he bolted away to a nearby bush. I heard parrots in some trees call out and he responded. The parents! The baby then flew up to a tall poplar where they were waiting for him. He looked a little weak and sloppy, but he made it. He’s in safe hands now. My hunch is that he fledged a little too soon, or else he’d been trying to keep up with his parents before he was ready to. At first after fledging (taking their first flight) the babies take only short flights and stay in a tree for most of the day waiting for the parents to come back and feed them. I always love seeing the babies. They look so fresh and innocent looking with their big baby eyes.

On another nature note, I belong to something called the South End Rowing Club, which Judy got me into. It’s not what its name might make it seem. It’s at the north end of the city and caters mostly to swimmers, but does have rowers and handball players, too. It’s a blue collar club—not a fancy white collar one. The building is real old and located right on the beach of a cove in San Francisco called Aquatic Park. Most people stick to the cove for their swims, but there are some intrepid swimmers who venture out into the bay itself, swimming Alcatraz and beyond. Judy’s one of those. After sticking to the safety of the cove for thirteen years, I’m about to do my first out-of-cove swim. I’ll be doing a 1.2 mile swim out in the bay along the shoreline from something called Coghlan Beach back to the cove. I’ll be doing it on a flood tide, so it should be relatively easy—like a log being washed along by the tide. I’ve been training for several weeks, and it’s done a lot to take my mind off my book frustrations. (Things are getting better in that department, by the way.) The swim is Sunday morning. Wish me luck.

Progress Report #94

July 26, 2014

It’s been awhile since I’ve done one of these. I have to say that, right now, progress is slow. A while back I saw myself zooming forward, marching boldly through the final draft. But it hasn’t happened that way. I’ve suffered through a couple of ailments in recent months, first a severe cold and then a bad back problem. I’m fine now and working, but progress is, as I say, slow. There are two reasons for this. I find the beginning the most difficult part (and I’m speaking of the beginning of the last draft). Everything has to be set up just so and you have to find your voice. I’m working out all the issues. I’m seeing what Street Song wants to be, beyond my own ideas for it. Books make their own demands. The second reason is that I’ve been working on this thing for eight years now. I still have no contract (My agent hasn’t started looking for one yet) and I feel like I’m swimming across an ocean with no land in sight. It’s disorienting and exhausting. I swim and swim and it’s hard to see my progress. What have I completed? A preface, Chapters One and Two, and two completed chapters from the middle of the book, which, realistically, will change once I work my way up to them. (These were written as samples for the proposal that my agent will take around to publishers.) I’m working sequentially now. I’m currently about halfway through Chapter Three. I also have a completed outline that may change some as I work my way through. What I need is to gather my energies and really get down to business. I’ve had too many distractions lately. A real deadline (i.e. a contract) would help immensely. But that will come in its own time.

Writing a book is hard. It’s crazy-making. But I will finish it.

Is There a Place for Technology?

July 19, 2014

Today I was perusing the New York Times web site and came upon an article about “what role poetry plays in a technologized world.” The full article belonged to the premium level of the web site, so I was only able to read the teaser. But I thought, “That’s backwards.” The root of existence is utterly pure—pure poetry. It’s the place where there is no commerce, desire, anger or lies. It’s the pure playing out of what really is. We have arisen from that, as has everything else. The poetry is karma, which is not reward and punishment, but cause and effect. Karma is the events that arise, in part, from the decisions we make, some of which are less pleasant that others. And karma is inexorable. As Stephen Gaskin once said (I’m paraphrasing), “Karma can be compared to taking a swing at a golf ball in a fully tiled bathroom. It’s going to get you.” Technology, along with a bunch of other of our creations, has been leading us away from an awareness of the purity of reality. Technology is not reality. It’s virtual reality. If we don’t reduce our obsession with the distraction, we’re going to suffer greatly for it. So the real question is what role technology might play within the pure poetry of the universe.

Main Street Marijuana

June 28, 2014

I grew up in the town of Vancouver, Washington, and like everybody with intellectual, artistic, or spiritual inclinations I grew up hating my hometown for stifling my aspirations. I was a big fan of the Sinclair Lewis novel Main Street because it bolstered my contempt for the small-town mindset. I read it several times. I longed to move to some great city where I would find the open, cosmopolitan mindset where everybody talked about serious, creative issues. (Interestingly, Henry Miller despised his hometown of New York City for many of the same reasons I despised Vancouver.)

Forty years ago, when I arrived in San Francisco I thought I’d finally found what I was looking for. So it’s ironic that on July 7th my old hometown is getting its first marijuana store, while here in San Francisco the locals get all uptight whenever a medical marijuana dispensary is proposed for their neighborhood. It’s especially ironic for me, deliciously ironic, that the new store is going to be located on Vancouver’s Main Street and will be called Main Street Marijuana.

I’m entirely in favor of legalizing marijuana. But, as it seems to be with nearly all issues these days, my reasons for supporting it are different than that of most people. I think legalizing it for medical reasons is fine, but I don’t like the “recreational” tag. It’s frivolous. It encourages people to approach marijuana as a party drug, which is a waste of its real value. The justification for legalization is its value as a spiritual tool.

I’m well aware that you’d never get the stuff legalized taking that approach. Today’s image of the dope smoker is that of a lazy, dull-minded space cadet, a credulous fool. Furthermore, although few of them like to talk about it, a lot of people who used to smoke it stopped because, they say, it started making them “paranoid.” Marijuana is essentially an amplifier—a benevolent one, I’d say. It increases your awareness, in the beginning at least. It depends, though, on what you want it to do. When I was playing music, some of my best performances happened while I was high. (This was not merely my subjective opinion. The audiences affirmed it for me each time.) My hearing was extraordinarily acute and I was strongly aware of the smallest details in my playing and singing. Likewise, I’ve had some fine meditations while stoned, special insights that I still remember. The thing is, you always come back down. The hope is that you learned something while you were high that you could begin to strive toward in your day-to-day unstoned mind. The problem with people who smoke it and smoke it and smoke it is they blow out their energy. That’s why you get sleepy stoners who don’t seem very bright. They’ve shot their wad. (You can always get it back. It doesn’t cause permanent damage. You just have to stop for awhile.)  I haven’t smoked any in 15 years. I’m still working on what I learned in those first 30 years of smoking. As for paranoia, the drug itself doesn’t make you paranoid. It simply shows you the paranoia that is already within you. It shows you by amplifying it. But it also amplifies love. It amplifies everything.

Anyway, that’s my take on the subject. I’m happy to discuss. My best wishes to Main Street Marijuana. May it be a successful enterprise.

The Future of the Book: An Introduction

June 14, 2014

This is my first entry on a subject that I want to address: the future of the book. It’s something that matters to me very much, of course. Many internet enthusiasts maintain that the book is dying, which I think is naive. The book is suffering right now, but it’s not going to die. The internet will die before the book ever does. I’ll go into why I think that’s true in future posts. For this first post, I want to look at a brief exchange in an interview with the poet and ecology activist Gary Snyder that I saw on YouTube. This extract confirms a hunch I’ve had about one of the beliefs of cyber-intellectuals, a belief they tend to keep in the background. I’ve put into italics the specific point that I’m referring to.

Interviewer: Do you think that there is any literary vocation, in the largest sense of the word—literary, not poetical—one that may be assumed by so-called prose writers?

Gary Snyder: Maybe. I don’t know. The publishing business is falling apart. Books are not selling. Bookstores are closing. Everybody is saying the Internet is the new thing. What do you think? It’s your generation. What do you think is going to happen?

Interviewer: I think we will still need literature for some reasons.

Gary Snyder: By literature, you mean books or do you mean writing?

Interviewer: Writing.

Gary Snyder: Is it okay for writing to be online?

Interviewer: Honestly, I do think so.

Gary Snyder: Do you think writers should be paid?

Interviewer: Um… Well, that’s a difficult issue.

Gary Snyder: Well, you can’t be a writer if you can’t make a living.

Interviewer: Yeah, that’s true. Um…

Gary Snyder: Unless you want to be an academic, but that’s not a real writer.

Interviewer: But would you say it’s just to write for a living? To earn money?

Gary Snyder: Whatever you do you have to earn enough money to feed your family.

Interviewer: Okay. So you’re a pragmatist.

Gary Snyder: Of course I’m a pragmatist. I’m a grown up. You know? I’m an adult. I know that I have to feed a family.

The interviewer is around 20 years old, a student in Krakow, Poland. I’ve looked into him a little. He’s an urban technofile. I’ve long had the sense that the real attitude of these people toward writers, musicians and other “content providers” is that they should be doing their work for free in their spare time, that to make a living doing creative work is elitist. I feel that my hunch has been confirmed here — “Well, that’s a difficult issue.” For cyber-intellectuals, the internet fanatics, the most vital aspect of the digital lifestyle is gadgetry. You need content to give the gadgets something to do, but that’s secondary. This is another example of form over content — the medium is the message — which is backwards. We live in a backward, or an upside down, era. (I’ll do a future post on Marshall McLuhan, of whom I used to be a big fan.) Listening to the interview, when the interviewer agrees with Snyder’s assertion that you can’t be a writer if you can’t make a living at it, he’s not being sincere. It’s merely a tactical retreat. A grown man has challenged him over something he has not thought through, so he backs off. But his real attitude, which he’s not willing to push too hard here, is one of the most widespread that those who write books, make films, take photos, or make music have to deal with nowadays: Your work should be free, and if you’re not willing to give it to us, then we’ll simply take it from you. Can someone offer support for this idea? I’d be interested in hearing from you.

You can watch the entire 25-minute interview here.

Good News

June 4, 2014

It’s been very difficult to post anything here lately. There are several reasons: busy with the book, busy with Judy’s movie, busy with Judy’s Kickstarter campaign, have a lousy cold. Mostly though it’s because I’ve been quite pessimistic lately and haven’t wanted to unload that yet again on this blog. I wanted some good news first.

Well, there is some. First of all, Judy’s Kickstarter campaign succeeded. She made her goal of $50,000, so the project will be funded. Thank you to everyone who gave. And there is other good news: Yesterday, San Francisco voters passed Proposition B by a margin of 59 to 40 percent. Prop B requires that any building project on city-owned waterfront property that would exceed height limits already in place will require a vote of the people to proceed. There have been a lot of complaints that Prop B becomes city planning by the ballot box, that it’s inefficient, slow, open to corruption by politics and scares away developers (I hope). The reason the proposition became necessary is that the San Francisco city government is currently in the hands of developers. The city rubber stamps every development proposal no matter how massive, ugly and inappropriate. They want San Francisco to be a playground for the rich—the global rich. Local development organizations such as SPUR peddle the idea of the “New Urbanism,” which is really just the old urbanism with delusions of grandeur attached. SPUR seems to be made up of liberals who have lost their ideals but like to think that that they’re still forward-thinking. They push the idea that density makes a city vibrant. But it’s still just rats packed tight in a cage. I used to ask a friend who closely follows city politics what the ideology of organizations like SPUR was. He always looked at me with irritation—irritation at how slow and dull I was. “Money,” he would tell me. And I’ve come to see that he’s absolutely right. There is no ideology. Just the desire to get rich.

Proposition B is probably just a holding action. San Francisco has severely deteriorated in the past few years. It has become everything I came here to get away from. The cost of living here continues to drive out the people who see life as being about something more than making money. The developers and their allies are going to keep pushing. They are ruthless and see San Francisco as a goldmine that they are determined to exploit. I used to know a guy who believed that San Francisco was the New Jerusalem. It’s not. It’s just a plain old, garden-variety Babylon.

Thought for the Day

May 17, 2014

When creeks are full
The poems flow
When creeks are down
We heap stones

Gary Snyder, from Regarding Wave


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