White Noise by Don DeLillo. Can we claim the powers of our age?

White noiseI read Don DeLillo’s White Noise in 2005. The thing I remember most from the book is a key plot event (spoiler). A main character becomes addicted to a pill that removes her fear of death, the side effect being a loss of ability to distinguish fact from fantasy. Imagine that. I wonder at the moment if a potent enough fantasy could remove one’s fear of death? In 2005 I was in the height of my back-to-the-land phase, thinking about family, tools and nostalgia. I suppose I was trying to sort fact from fantasy. I wrote down quotations from the book on those subjects and others.

The family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation. There must be something in family life that generates factual error. Over-closeness, the noise and heat of being. Perhaps something even deeper, like the need to survive. Murray says we are fragile creatures surrounded by a world of hostile facts. Facts threaten our happiness and security. The deeper we delve into the nature of things, the looser our structure may seem to become. The family process works towards sealing off the world. Small errors grow heads. Fictions proliferate. (81-82)

There are no amateurs in the world of children. (103)

On tools, can we claim the powers of our particular age or are we freeloaders on our culture? Have we taken the time to learn how things work, as shown by our ability to independently recreate its tools and inventions, and articulate its insights?

“It’s like we’ve been flung back in time,” he said. “Here we are in the Stone Age, knowing all these great things after centuries of progress, but what can we do to make life easier for the Stone Agers? Can we make a refrigerator? Can we even explain how it works? What is electricity? What is light? We experience these things every day of our lives but what good does it do if we find ourselves hurled back in time and we can’t even tell people the basic principles much less actually make something that would improve conditions. Name one thing you could make. Could make a simple wooden match that you could strike on a rock to make a flame? We think we’re so great and modern. Moon landings, artificial hearts. But what if you were hurled into a time warp and came face to face with the ancient Greeks. The Greeks invented trigonometry. They did autopsies and dissections. What could you tell an ancient Greek that he couldn’t say, ‘Big deal.’ Could you tell him about the atom? Atom is a Greek word. The Greeks knew that the major events in the universe can’t be seen by the eye of man. It’s waves, it’s rays, it’s particles.” (147-148)

Wilder sat on a tall stool in front of the stove, watching water boil in a small enamel pot. He seemed fascinated by the process. I wondered if he’d uncovered some splendid connection between things he’d always thought of as separate. The kitchen is routinely rich is such moments, perhaps for me as much as for him. (212)

There were times when he seemed to attack me with terms like ratchet drill and whipsaw. He saw my shakiness in such matters as a sign of some deeper incompetence or stupidity. These were the things that built the world. Not to know or care about them was a betrayal of fundamental principles, a betrayal of gender, of species. What could be more useless than a man who couldn’t fix a dripping faucet – fundamentally useless, dead to history, to the messages in his genes? I wasn’t sure I disagreed. (245)

It is easy to mistake back-to-the-land thinking as just nostalgia. The modifier ‘just’ is the mistake. Nostalgia may speak to a misstep, a feeling that something good was lost by accident but the memory is fading. Many good solutions for the present can be found in the past, but they are ignored because they are not new. Those who sense it struggle to revive consciousness.

Murray says it is possible to be homesick for a place even when you are there. (257)

I don’t trust anybody’s nostalgia but my own. Nostalgia is a product of dissatisfaction and rage. It’s a settling of grievances between the present and the past. The more powerful the nostalgia, the closer you come to violence. War is the form nostalgia takes when men are hard-pressed to say something good about their country. (258)

Was I immersing myself, little by little, in a secret life? Did I think it was my last defense against the ruin worked out for me so casually by the force or nonforce, the principle or power or chaos that determines such things? … I sat at my desk thinking of secrets. Are secrets a tunnel to a dreamworld where you control events?

The north wind blew right through my old farm house. There came a time to leave. Still sometimes I think about these things.

Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford. The separation of thinking and doing is an artificial and harmful practice.

Shop class as soulcraftI suspect that Matt Crawford’s publisher came up with the title of his book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. The title attracted and repelled me for a year before I read this book. The now largely defunct shop class was still around when I went to high school in the eighties. I learned a measure of competence in handling materials and their machines that has proved useful and satisfying over the years. This connection piqued my interest, but “soulcraft” had the distinct ring of marketing. The subtitle was even more difficult, a clear pitch to fans of Pirsig’s famous novel, a book I have read once per decade for the last thirty years. I would not lightly judge a poser. Fortunately, Crawford speaks with his own voice on a timely issue, the role of the trades and right livelihood in the information age.

Too many children are being hustled off to university in pursuit of so-called knowledge work. Trained in electrical work and vehicle maintenance as a youth, Crawford pursued a doctorate in philosophy. On the way he took a job that seemed ideally suited to him, writing abstracts of journal articles for a database, only to find the quota impossibly high for comprehension. After obtaining his PhD he was hired by a think tank and paid very well, only the results of their “thinking” were predetermined by the oil company that funded it. He left the academic world to open a motorcycle shop. To hell with economics and opportunity cost. He preferred the cognitive challenges of the trades. Historically, scientific thinking came from a close handling of materials by bright workers. Crawford explains how the separation of thinking and doing is an artificial and harmful practice that started with industrialization and advanced by Taylor at Harvard.

Crawford asserts that the separation of thinking and doing is now being applied to office work. In my dozen years of work in corporate IT, I personally find there are some satisfactions of the manual kind that Crawford thinks are reserved for the trades. Like the craftsman, I take pride in writing code that I know will never be appreciated by anyone except perhaps another developer. I get excited when the switch is about to be flipped on for a major program I wrote. Still, it is true that the only tactile experience I get is that of the keyboard. Worse, as programs begin to write programs, lower level coders are being phased out in favour of higher level configurators who have little real control over their products. This shift eliminates the need to master technical skills. Computers are becoming the assembly lines of thought sausages.

The problem is not technology. Crawford knows his Heidegger. We are technological beings, handy to the core. We need to feel our tools in our hands, not manage them remotely or regard them abstractly. There is a big difference between the explicit and universal nature of Ohm’s law, compared to the tacit and situational knowledge of the mechanic that electrical circuits must be tight, dry and clean. He is not being anti-intellectual, but attesting to the satisfaction and cognitive challenges of the trades. It is good advice even from an economic viewpoint. In the face of global outsourcing, one still cannot hammer a nail over the Internet.

The book is dedicated to his girls, which is nice, but the sexism in Crawford’s writing is glaring. The text is masculine in almost all of its pronouns. References to firefighters and chess players are stereotypical, while the one “she” plays music. Sexist jibes are considered appropriate training for young men. According to Crawford, classrooms can only contain boys prone to action by the use of psychiatric drugs, and corporate teamwork is for girls. Call me politically correct if you must, but the sexism is too much. We should have learned by now to welcome girls into the trades rather than scare them off with this tiresome prejudice.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. Scratching the itch.

Into the Wild (MTI)Chris McCandless, a young man with a fiery intellect and strident health, lived and died by his dream of Alaska. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer tells the story. Graduating from college, McCandless donated the last of his $24,000 savings to Oxfam, a charity dedicated to fighting hunger. He left behind his dysfunctional parents, his ID, and his car. He wandered America, by foot, kayak, and train. Sometimes he hooked up with people he met along the way for a meal or a job. Ultimately he made it to the wilds of Alaska. It is clear from his notes and photos that he lived a remarkable hundred days in the wild, feeding himself and contemplating nature and life. A few mistakes trapped him out there, and he starved to death. It is easy to condemn his foolishness. For some of us, it is hard not to envy his courage.

Dreams like this are always fueled by literature. McCandless read Tolstoy, London, and Thoreau. For a long time I collected back-to-the-land books, my “Scratch” collection. Scratch is the best word I can come up with for a cluster of ideals, starting with going back-to-the-land, simple living, and self-reliance, stretching to authenticity, personal sovereignty, and absolute enlightenment. Mind you, I am a complete amateur outdoors and a living example of the mundane. For a few years I lived with my family on a rural property, trying my hand at country skills. I called it my Scratch collection, after Carl Sagan’s well-known quote, “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe”. It was not so much about the land as the freedom. Being alone in nature, we lose track of our ego. It is a hint of enlightenment.

Sean Penn made a movie adaptation of Into the Wild, with a compelling performance by Emile Hirsch, and a haunting soundtrack by Eddie Veder. I had watched the movie before, but have watched it twice more since reading the book. The story of McCandless on its own leaves the viewer aroused but fearful, hungry for insight. The book goes deeper, offering the perspective of other perilous adventures, including Krakauer’s own insane winter climb, the one that later compelled him to follow McCandless’ trail.

Near the end of his short life, McCandless underlined this line from Doctor Zhivago:

… Here she stopped and, closing her eyes, took a deep breath of the flower-scented air of the broad expanse around her. It was dearer to her than her kin, better than a lover, wiser than a book. For a moment she rediscovered the purpose of her life. She was here on earth to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment and to call each thing by its right name …

Odes to Tools by Dave Bonta. The socket wrench handles torque and clicks against the gearwheel’s teeth.

Odes to ToolsOnce upon a time I lived back-to-the-land. Just a few years. When the kids were still young, my family and I made the classic move to the country. Old farmhouse, barn, septic bed, dug well, big skies. In the garden, I heard the call of the land. It said, John, you buffoon, the land doesn’t talk. It caught me by surprise how much I loved it out there. I learned the essential back-to-the-land skills: gardening, home-brewing, canning, small-engine repair. I grew fond of simple, old-fashioned tools: the hand shovel for ploughing the garden, the gold-tined pitchfork for turning my immense open compost pile, the smooth-handled hatchet for clearing roots, the wrecking hammer for tearing down an old shed, and the scythe for the never-ending battle with weeds. The kids grew up. The north wind blew right through the old farm house. There came a time to leave.

Still I carry a back-to-the-land fascination in my pocket. Now and again, something prompts it out, like Dave Bonta’s book of poetry, Odes to Tools. Dave denies his handiness, but knows his way with poetry. The socket wrench handles torque and clicks against the gearwheel’s teeth. The saw too has teeth, as many as a school of piranhas, thus it copes. The claw hammer has a pair of legs strong enough between them to birth nails. Emissaries from a country that no longer exists, he says of the scythe. I picked up the scythe when my gas-powered, industrial weed-eater with bush blade finally surpassed my small-engine repair skills. Silent tools have their own manner of speaking. Thanks Dave for finding the words.

These days I live neck-deep in technology. It serves its purposes. Most computers are multipurpose devices, designed to do everything, often at cross-purposes. I find myself fascinated by single-purpose gadgets: a dashboard mounted GPS, a counter-top internet radio, an ereader. My hand tools presented as single-purpose devices, like the saw, as Dave says, that walks the straight and narrow, restricted to harsh amens of service. Of course, hand tools were never single-purpose, the hatchet cleared not only roots but chicken heads too. Even so, single-purpose tools allow their handler to focus attention for arduous work, to step through complexities. A design lesson there.

You can purchase his book online, or send him a cheque for a signed copy. In the manner of the old country you can barter with Dave for copy. Also be sure to read Dave’s blog, Via Negativa, a remarkable compilation of poetry, video-poetry, podcasts, and philosophy. I’ve been an avid reader for three years.

Free Radical: A Reconsideration of the Good Death of Scott Nearing, by Ellen LaConte. A sad or bittersweet ending can often be just as satisfying as a happy one.

Free RadicalThe life of Scott Nearing is a powerful story. A professor of economics, he was quickly blacklisted as a radical for his protests against capitalism, injustice and war. Out of work, he and his wife Helen established a farm in Vermont, where their self-reliant lifestyle began what came to be known as the Good Life in their books. I have previously mentioned Living The Good Life: How To Live Sanely And Simply In A Troubled World, which tells their back-to-the-land story. It was an inspiration to many, and people would visit the homestead, free to stay and help out. Four hours bread labour a day, then time to write, talk or engage in other progressive activities. If there was any doubt that this was the good life, Scott lived to be a hundred years old before his death in 1983.

A good ending is essential to a good story. As Helen told it in Loving and Leaving the Good Life, when Scott reached one hundred, he knew his health was failing. Their life was about honesty, simplicity, fearlessness and deliberate choices, a path outside a system they viewed as unsustainable. At Scott’s end, he was not about to seek medical interventions to prolong his life. One day he decided to stop eating. He died peacefully at home. This image of his death affected me. If I find myself in a similar situation, I thought, dying and clear of mind, I would like to make that kind of choice about my death, and face it with eyes open. It would be a good ending.

I have sometimes told others about Scott’s death. The usual reaction is, yikes, starving to death would be painful. I would just brush aside that natural reaction, but LaConte’s Free Radical has given me cause to reflect more deeply. After Scott died, LaConte become close with Helen, working with her as a secretary and designated biographer. She learned that there was more to Scott’s death, more that needed to be told for people like me who felt Scott’s death exemplary. The short, inexpensive book is available from the Good Life Center. LaConte provides keen insight into the mythology that shrouds the Nearings. She adds missing elements about Scott’s suffering and the Nearing’s dependence on others, without detracting for a moment from respect for them. It completes the picture for ordinary people, essential reading for anyone interested in unconventional views about death. A sad or bittersweet ending can often be just as satisfying as a happy one.

Safe Haven by Larry Gaudet. “Sanctuary porn”, fantasies of a simpler place to retreat from the pressures of modern life.

Safe HavenLarry Gaudet has a dream of sanctuary. He takes his family to a quiet seaside village in Nova Scotia and builds a “barn” home with an ocean view.

Gaudet says we all have a dream of sanctuary, and I do not disagree, but is “sanctuary” the right term? Sanctuary has historic associations with churches and cathedrals but my thoughts of comfort are more base, simple rougher habitations like a log cabin, a cottage, a quiet apartment, even a tent. It’s all “sanctuary porn”, fantasies of a simpler place to retreat from the pressures of modern life. Of course, reality is somewhat different. Run from your outer demons and you will start hearing the voices of your inner ghosts. Despite the idyllic setting, Gaudet has difficulty staying emotionally at home with his wife and sons. He mentally revisits places and situations, always trying to get a grip on the meaning of sanctuary. Gaudet is not a religious man, but he recognizes that at the heart of sanctuary is something sacred, something more important than our daily hurry-burry, and for most of us that is our loved ones and a feeling of home.

Safe Haven is timely given the issue of safety on the world scene. Gaudet is a fine guide on this psychological journey, though his wife and boys remain disappointingly peripheral to the end. Perhaps sanctuary is always elusive.

Living the Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing. Why not just play music for one another for entertainment? Or read to one another? Do people do this anymore?

Living the good lifeLiving the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World is a practical book by Helen and Scott Nearing on the simple life. They describe how they built their stone home and fed themselves off the land. The first edition was in 1954, long before the idea of going back-to-the-land was trendy in the sixties, and before it began to seem necessary in the oil crisis of the seventies. Scott Nearing was previously an economics professor who was blacklisted for his socialist views. The couple undertook a simple lifestyle so they could continue promoting their progressive politics.

Three ideas from the book really stuck with me.

One, the idea of bread labour. The Nearings worked only four hours a day to feed themselves, and spent the other hours in activist and creative pursuits; the simple life does not have to be long days of physical labour.

Two, the mono-diet. The Nearings lived on a diet of simple staples with little variance. At first this struck me as awful — does simple have to mean boring? On reflection, it made much more sense. Our culture demands that our food be new and different daily, and we ignore the cost of dragging foods across the planet so we can have whatever we want whenever we want. This demand is more about a craving of ego than of physical appetite. Indigenous eating reconnects us with our local foods and local economy. Variety is nice, but we may appreciate more subtle nuances when we pay closer attention to our food at hand.

Three, Sunday morning music. Helen was an accomplished musician. Scott asked her why she played the music of others instead of making her own. The music industry of our day is designed for the reproduction and distribution of other people’s music. Music has to have mass appeal, and musicians have to dedicate careers to the production of material. Why not just play music for one another for entertainment? Or read to one another? Do people do this anymore?

World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler. Suppose the oil ran out …

World Made by HandThe oil ran out but the cars still needed gas. The superpowers warred for the last of it, blowing up major cities. The lights went dark. Economies grinded to a halt. Epidemics broke out, killing many. Such is Kunstler’s vision of a post-oil future in World Made by Hand. “A fragment of the plastic Kmart sign remained bolted to the facade — the piece that said — art. The irony did not move me.” (10).

Despair makes sense for the people left behind. A few optimists are waiting for the ‘rough patch’ to end, but depression is chronic among the survivors in the town of Union Grove. The family of Robert Earle is dead, except for a missing son. The occasional flicker of the radio brings only doomsday preaching. Still, one cannot help but notice a few silver linings. People are outdoors, working the land for food again, converting their garages back to barns. The dump has become the town’s general supply. The church is doing better than it has in decades, having become the new community center. Robert and others gather weekly to play music. Life could be worse.

Unfortunately, it becomes so. Wayne Carp is head of the gang that runs the supply. One of his men commits a senseless murder. Justice collapsed with civilization, for crimes, but socially too, with women quickly deprecated back to second class, while men carry guns. It becomes clear that what is critically absent in this future is not natural resources or sophisticated technology, but justice; a lesson there.

Brother Jobe is leader of a radical religious group takes over the local high school. It is difficult to be sure of the implications of this group’s arrival. Jobe and his people seem decent, motivated to improve the town, and indeed they make a big difference in the outcome of the story, but at what price? Many threads are unravelled but unresolved in this story — Robert’s son, rumours of a newly elected President — but this fits for a community cut off from the larger world. Another thread is the brotherhood with bizarre elements that beg more explanation, perhaps in another book.

World Made by Hand is one title of an emerging genre that I call, ‘Scratch’, in the sense of making from scratch. It includes titles such as Drop City by T.C. Boyle and The Holding by Merilyn Simonds. The stories are about modern people who go back to the land. That is interesting it itself, but the setting is also a metaphor for a psychological journey, through our persona as modern citizens to our more authentic core. It is a quest for answers to important questions, like the value of justice over technology.

Related Links:

World Made by Hand website (includes great music and a book trailer)

Website of James Howard Kunstler, the author

The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating, by Alisa Smith & J.B. MacKinnon. Strawberries “superlatively sun-sweetened to the brink of sweet booziness”.

The 100-Mile Diet“It was the kind of meal that, when the plates were clean, led some to dark corners to sleep with the hushing of the wind, and others to drink mulled wine until our voices had climbed an octave and finally deepened, in the small hours, into whispers.” (pg. 3)

The 100-Mile Diet begins in a cottage with no light, fridge, car or hot water; the kind of place I dream of when too immersed in the hectic daily business of life. Most of us would starve out there, or so we believe. After an inspired meal gathered only from the wild, Alisa and James launched a year-long diet of food only found within 100 miles of their home. They found themselves returning from their cottage not starving, but with armfuls more food than they arrived with.

Why would anyone limit themselves to eating locally? How does that help anyone? Doesn’t it deprive third-world farmers and truckers of their livelihoods? There are a number of persuasive reasons. Local foods have fewer pesticides and more nutrition. Seasonal variety is good for developing immunity. Unprocessed foods represent a real solution to the obesity problem. Distant foods are only affordable through cheap oil, arguably enforced politically. Sparing the miles reduces the carbon emissions that cause global warming. And about those third-world farmers: when the 1994 free trade agreement was signed, subsidized corn from America overwhelmed Mexico’s two million small farmers and their 5000 varieties of corn. The collapse of a local industry due to economic deals (or a train derailment spilling ten thousand gallons of caustic soda into the river and killing half a million fish) is merely one disaster in a global economy in which we can always go elsewhere. In a local economy, we are reminded that such events are a catastrophe.

Works for me. But how does one go about eating locally? And can it be done without a “depression style diet of beets, cabbage and potatoes” (pg. 24)? Alisa and James started simply, eating seasonally from the farmer’s markets. It is not tough to find these in your area, e.g., Ontario. They sensibly used up supplies like salt that were already in their cupboards, but when they ran out they improvised, e.g., refining salt from the ocean. They used honey instead of sugar; I have got to get me some of that pumpkin honey. The great revelation from local eating is the immense variety of tastes that can be found. It reminds me of my half-dozen batches of home-brewing I did a couple years ago. I started with simple recipes but then discovered real flavour by adding freshly rolled grains and hops.

I went grocery shopping when I was reading their book. I read the source of each product on its label. Local apple juice replaced California grapefruit juice, and blueberries replaced my sultan raisins from Iran. I had no idea that carbonated water came all the way from Italy or Germany; dropped that. I have not replaced coffee yet but I am thinking about herbal tea. I am sure olive oil can be exchanged for a healthy local vegetable oil. And local vegetables frozen when fresh are always a good choice.

Turning over a local leaf can get quite philosophical. Their diet was not vegetarian, and this raised the question of whether the animals had been fed locally. They lived near the US border; should they break the law by taking local foods across it? Inevitably, you have to ask yourself if you are doing this because you believe the world is falling apart. When Alisa and James were shucking corn in their apartment they felt like part of some apocalyptic cult. While it is hard not to wonder at times if our fast global culture can sustain itself, I have to count myself with them among the non-believers. Instead, I see progress as something that is not always linear; sometimes we have to take a few steps back to pick up something we missed. A few weeks ago I read an objection to slow food on the grounds that women would likely have to do most of the work (see comments in this Metafilter post). Both Alisa and James worked hard, but James did most of the cooking. Perhaps we had to step away from slow food for awhile to advance women’s rights, but now may be a time to return to it for our health and that of the planet.

Alisa and James are journalists by trade but they sure know how to have fun with language; they “scuffed over to the farmer’s stand” (pg. 53) and ate strawberries “superlatively sun-sweetened to the brink of sweet booziness” (pg. 54). The edge in their relationship was of no more interest to me than it appeared to be to James as they alternated narration by chapter; I wondered if Alisa was simply missing some nutrient in her diet. I much preferred the drama of their quest for wheat: the disappointment at the ruined bag, the discovery that wheat had been grown locally in 1890, and Alisa’s delight when she declared, “I found a wheat farmer” (pg. 184). With a little effort, everything was possible.