Archive for September, 2014

Independence for Scotland

September 17, 2014

It’s not really my business, but if I lived in Scotland I would vote for independence. I think generally the world is better off with more smaller nations that correspond to an actual culture than meganations, whose sole aim is the acquisition of more power.

A country shall be small
and its populace small in number.
Implements that multiply men’s strength
shall not be used.
People are to take death seriously
and shall not travel far away.
Even though there be ships and carriages
no-one shall travel in them.
Let the people tie knots in ropes
and use them instead of script.
Make their food sweet
and their garments beautiful,
their dwellings peaceful
and their customs joyful.
Neighboring countries may be within eyesight
so that one can hear the cocks crow and the dogs bark
on either side.
And yet people shall die at great age
without having travelled hither and thither.

Tao Te Ching 80, translated by Richard Wilhelm

That passage used to bother me. It doesn’t anymore. I’ve come to agree with it.

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.