Thoroughly Earth Day

It’s difficult to say, since I don’t get outside much, but reports have come in that the earth is healing itself while we’ve been sequestered.  Rivers usually polluted have begun to run clean.  Smoke-smuggered skies have turned blue.  Animals have begun to explore human-made environments abandoned while we all shelter in place.  Could there be a more poignant statement about the reason for Earth Day?  If our worst behaviors are ceased even for a little while, the damage we do to our home planet begins to come undone.  To me that has been the most profound hope brought to light by this crisis.  Living more simply might be a virtue after all.

From NASA’s photo library

Going without can be difficult.  Every time the fleeting thought comes that I need to run to the store for this or that—and I’ve been taught that shopping is normal and natural and good for everyone—I have to stop and weigh the options.  Do I really need whatever it is?  Can I do without it?  Even bank accounts, for those fortunate enough to be able to keep working, have started to recover.  The frenzy we normally live under—earning money to keep buying things we don’t really need—is suddenly cast into perspective.  Times like this Earth Day I think of Henry David Thoreau.  Sometimes we like to laugh about our American saints, but his desire to live more simply does have appeal.  

Like many students who find themselves in Boston, I once made pilgrimage to Walden Pond.  The day I went there with some friends I believe we were the only car in the lot.  We lived simply in the way that grad students do, being under the sword of educational debts and loans, but we had come to see the place where nature had called one harried philosopher to solitude.  I knew, even as I stood by the marker of the cabin site that we couldn’t all live like this and still enjoy the benefits of medical science and technology (such as it was in the 1980s).  Perhaps it is possible, however, to reflect on better ways of living now that we’ve all been placed in a kind of enforced solitude.  I’ve begun reading more poetry.  I’ve started painting again.  Life has, in the midst of a pandemic, begun to feel more healthy.  It’s Earth Day.  Normally I’d be looking for an opportunity to join a community cleaning event, or even to go out and pick up trash on my own.  Since these are ill-advised, I stand before my bookshelf and reach for Walden instead.


Travel Ban

I’m not at home.  I know in the current crisis that sounds like heresy, but I can honestly say that getting out of the usual routine where COVID-19 is all you hear about feels right.  More and more organizations are instituting work from home policies—many of them mandatory.  I’ve worked from home for going on two years now.  You need to get out a bit.  I know travel isn’t recommended, but I’m really not afraid to die.  Besides, I put a box of latex gloves in the car and when we stopped for a restroom break, wore them until they could be safely removed.  Exposed surfaces in the rest area were being continually wiped down.  Don’t get me wrong—for an introvert like me working at home is fine.  It’s just the idea of feeling like this virus is some zombie apocalypse happening just outside my door that I needed to dispel.

When I told a friend I was no longer going to be commuting on a regular basis he said if it were him he’d only ever buy sweatpants again.  Now that my reality is life with my wife being the only person I regularly see, I’m beginning to realize just how much our clothes purchases are for impressing others.  My haberdashery is akin to that of Henry David Thoreau; I wear clothes until they’re no longer functional.  They can be badly out of date but they still work.  The fashion industry is built on pride.  To put it in the words of my old friend Qohelet, vanity.  We want others to see what we’re wearing.  If we’re still donning last year’s gay apparel we’re not playing the game.  Never mind those of us whose wardrobes could be carbon-dated.  The pandemic can be revealing.

So I’m away from home for what is really the first time in months.  I had to stop in the grocery store for a few things.  Only one person I saw was wearing a mask, but I was wearing prophylactics, so who’s going to cast the first stone?  Many shelves were bare.  The CDC has become our new gospel provider.  I’m limiting my outside exposure.  Driving door to door, greeting no-one along the way (that actually is the gospel, but substitute the walking for the driving part).  I know when this weekend’s over I’ll be back to my cloistered existence as the rest of the world tries to get used to the loneliness of the sweatpants crowd.  If you’re one of them take it from me—the rest of the world is still out there.


Patchwork

I don’t wear clothing with advertisements.  Perhaps it’s my Quaker-like sensibilities, or maybe it’s just that I hate being a shill.  What has any corporation done for me that I should give it free advertising?  Actually, not free—advertising that I have to pay to give?  I do have a few college sweatshirts, though.  Always a booster for education, I don’t mind wearing that brand.  Otherwise, I sit back and marvel how marketers get people to think it’s cool to strut their (the marketers’) stuff.  Brand names declare one’s tribe, one’s level of affluence.  I used to rip any exterior labels off my clothes but it became clear it was a losing battle, especially when brands are incorporated (note the word) into the very design.  And we play along.

I shouldn’t be too harsh.  After all, corporations are people too.  At least in the cataract-infested eyes of the law.  They have rights just like, or even more than, individuals do.  We live this fiction and watch the wealthy grow loftier, and we wear their brands so that others will sense where we belong.  Long ago I began to object to this.  Maybe it was because I grew up poor and wearing cheap knock-offs of brand names was embarrassing.  The cut of your trousers said something about what your folks could afford.  I actually began buying all my own clothes at the age of fourteen and, consequently, habitually wear things until not even Goodwill will consider them appropriate for resale.  And I still tend to buy generic.  Thoreau, in a patched quote from Walden and Civil Disobedience can be made to say it well:

As for clothing, […] perhaps we are led oftener by the love of novelty, and a regard for the opinions of men, in procuring it, than by a true utility. […] No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience.

The fact is we despise the patch-wearer for not playing the capitalist game.  You’ve got to pay good money for jeans with tears already in them and the world of the facile has no room for posers who actually wear through the knees.  If we ever meet you’ll know me by the frayed edges of my sleeves and cuffs.  I’ll likely be the guy sitting on a bench without a Starbucks cup in my hand, cradling Henry David and nodding vigorously.


Hello, I’m Not In

I recently received two “out of office” replies to my own “out of office” message. Being a fan of futility in all forms, this struck me as a great paradigm for the modern age. Email has made vacation superfluous, of course. I was actually out of town moving my daughter back to college, so email was not high on my list of priorities. When I’ve tried to leave work without putting on a message explaining that I’m not there (I tend to respond to emails quickly for an editor, so I’m told) I’ve been politely informed that it is rude not to let people know you’re away. Or computers. My non-message prompted a non-messages from other vacationers’ email accounts, and when I returned, I had to read them as well as the original email that had received my impersonal reply. Both had sent their replies, despite their out of office messages. This is indeed a brave new world.

It is a world where human interaction is optional, at best. Our industry grinds away making devices and services that people will buy with electronic money sent over a network that no one really controls. And we think nothing of it. Business has blinded us to how meaningless humanity has become. Business runs for business’s sake. Even so, we’re asked to check our email when we’re on vacation, in case something important comes up. I used to think vacation was important. It is the sop we’re thrown for working jobs that lack the visceral appeal of growing our own food and relying upon ourselves. Thoreau on the web.

Benjamin_D._Maxham_-_Henry_David_Thoreau_-_Restored

Science fiction is the great predictor of where we might go. Most of it is completely fiction, or course, but some manages to catch glimpses of the truth. Skynet, or even the Matrix or Hal, have sent messages to us. Machines that think are devices we don’t understand. We haven’t even defined consciousness to a level that satisfies anyone. We know it because we feel it. Oh, I’m not really an alarmist about all that. I do wonder, however, where we are headed when technology races ahead while the humanities are disparaged. All those who emulate Spock seem to have forgotten that his appeal is that he’s half human. We build our aliens to specification. And they now pass polite greetings when they speed past each other on the cyber-highway with no laws.