Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Waiting For The Hundredth Monkey


WIKIPEDIA: The "Hundredth Monkey Effect" is a supposed phenomenon in which a learned behaviour spreads instantaneously from one group of monkeys to all related monkeys once a critical number was reached. The story behind this supposed phenomenon originated with Lyall Watson, who claimed that it was the observation of Japanese scientists. Such an observation did not exist (e.g. Myers 1985, Amundsen 1985, 1991).

Parked in the dirt beside highway drive, lightning causes the radio to continuously change stations, and cold drops of the coming rain hit my skin. Beyond the squalor of junk cars and scattered little service businesses the sky is getting grayer and darker over the tiny hills that are the only relief from the flat desert landscape on the way to Phoenix. A bay opens up in the garage across the street and I drive the van/ambulance in to have the toe-in adjusted. It’s a huge garage with 24 ft ceilings, 4 bays, a parts shop, a dynamometer/engine rebuild space, and a large office where Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings of inventions are animated on the computer space savers. It’s all dark and dirty inside. Like 80% of garages its main purpose is to subsidize the owner’s racing habit. Don Hall sent me here to his brother’s alignment shop, from Just For Fun Auto Repair, a title whose irony could not be any deeper. Don works from seven to seven, his knees and feet are blown out, he’s fat, balding, worried and tired all the time, but it pays for his race cars. He’s cheap & brilliant & compassionate & Mormon. There’s a framed credo in his greasy office defending the sanctity of marriage against enemies that in my opinion are about as real as Elmer Fudd’s shotgun or the dwatted wabbit he can never hit.

Everybody else has got religion it seems, what about me? What can I believe? I sent my friend an email copy of my essay for NPR’s This I Believe. It begins, “I believe in the intelligence of nature”. She wrote back,

“What difference does it make if nature is intelligent, if we die and cockroaches take over? Belief is baloney.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but it’s GOOD baloney.” My brother’s belief takes him down to the county jail to rob people’s souls to save them, and the pisser is, it works. You really can substitute intellectual dope for cocaine, because, I think, they’re the same thing. People who think they’re being given marijuana actually get high. Dr. Weil says the placebo effect is as good or better than the best meds. Martin Luther King turned an ancient anthology full of myths, fables, gossip, historical inaccuracies and inherent contradictions into an instrument for guiding acts of courage and compassion. Al Quaeda turned the Quran into a weapon of murder/suicide and the ultimate intellectual cowardice of black and white, good and evil. Go figure. I wish I could stop because it’s a constant mental irritation.

My essay says I feel a common sympathy running thru all nature. Species and their immediate environments are engaged in a dance/dialogue based on proprioception and mimicry. In all the moments of the world, and all the sad stories the punch line is they ARE stories, and nature is capable of developing any number of intelligences besides ours, and greater than ours, and we can plug into that potential if we want, if we make up our minds to work with instead of against whatever portion of nature we are given to cultivate.

But nothing pisses people off more than being offered the wrong kind of salvation. Guess it’s kind of a sore subject.

I too am tired of grumpy old men with stringy white beards mistaking their irritability for inspiration, their prejudices & crochets for the word of god. How do you believe in anything after seeing these abuses of belief? But even belief in nothing is a belief. Only the completely catatonic and suicidally depressed have lost all faith But every time I think I’m getting somewhere I’m surrounded by conundrums.

In principle I believe we and all our technological traps are part of nature, and working on community and communication is a better strategy for survival than survivalism, but why is human governance so self destructive? And why would an intelligent nature create it that way?

But I feel a sympathy that runs thru all nature & I would be more joyful. The facts, themselves, have become liminal to me….like…the way we respond to other people in emergencies, the way children and animals and even plants respond to us, the way subatomic particles can affect each other across thousands of miles. Yeah, religion knows less than it says, but there’s more to this than you’re telling me in science class. Species evolve to fit niches like the key understood exactly what the lock was like, and was in love with it and imitating it and playing it and the whole scene beforehand. Why not just believe in the sympathy itself as the connective tissue of the universe? Or if the brains we think with are just atoms & molecules from the big bang become self reflexive, doesn’t whatever happens HAVE to be OK? Except for this little ego problem death always posits. We’ll work that out in no time.

Both these brothers who are working on my vehicles take better care of their customers than any other mechanics I know, and the customers thank them profusely, shake their hands and pat them on the back. That dividend is something we can’t measure. It may be all that’s keeping us alive.

But at the moment, I’ve lost all faith in everything because it’s getting darker and colder and windier outside and the rain is now roaring on the sheet metal roof like the end of the world and blowing in, in sporadic sheets. One of the five mechanics there walks over and puts a red blanket over the Snap On tool cabinet by the roll up door. As a joke somebody has pasted a sticker beside the Snap On logo showing a woman wearing a dildo that says “Strap On Tools”. Another mechanic comes in drenched and laughing rapidly like a machine gun. The others, usually as solemn as coronors, talk excitedly about the rain. A greasy German Shepherd with broken feet from walking on concrete all his life, comes over to me where I’m hunkered against a pillar where I can watch the alignment procedure. He sticks his head under my hand. His eyelids have opened wider and wider over the years and he has black tear runnels running down his jaw. It’s almost comforting to pet him, but I have a hernia that hurts with a dull ache that matches the drab surroundings, and I’m scared---of dying, or of living but not ever really being alive.

I left the roof hatch to my camper open and left a manuscript under it. I figure I’ll get home and find that and all my bedcovers soaked. Not much to worry about unless you have a long string of bad sense memories and associated disasters for other times when it rained, and not unless almost everything you have is at risk to one natural disaster or another. Outside of that, no worries. Cold, stinging sheets of rain are blowing over on me thirty five feet from the bay door now, and I get up to seek shelter. The garage space has darkened but the pin up girl on the calendar on the tool box by the door is somehow lit up like a projection and is flapping in the wind like an intentionally clumsy South Park animation. I believe this is hell.

After driving the van, which still pulls to the right because it needs new tires, just a few blocks from the garage, the rain stops, the ground dries out and the summer heat starts to come back. It was just a microburst. My mood flips and my belief in life improves dramatically.. Weather here in Southern Arizona is sudden and violent and people, likewise, switch from hot to cold and wet to dry without notice.

I call my artist friend, just back from England, to catch up on the news, and the latest in our mutual struggle against old age,

“I have to go get a goddam hernia belt.” I say.
“Well, don’t go to the doctor.” He says, sarcastically. I say I bought this ambulance on Ebay to use when my Isuzu NPR utility bed truck breaks down.
“Why?” he asked.
“O I thought I might need to drive myself to the hospital some time. And so I can have a second truck so I can keep working the business when the Isuzu needs work.”
“Of course you couldn’t just rent something.” He says.
“No”, I’m like that guy in Faulkner’s story who can’t stop buying horses.”

Yeah, right, you be Frank and I’ll be Stupid, I think, if we’re that hard up for entertainment, but there’s more to it than that, and it’s integral to another joke, which is the way all of us are forced to live these days. Which is so crazy we can’t talk about it because we don’t have time.

I don’t know of anyplace I can rent a truck with parts bins, cabinets, freon bottle and ladder racks, and it couldn’t be cheap if it existed. And working without those organizational amenities is the misery of always turning a pile of crap over to get what you want from the bottom. It will take a week to get the Isuzu alternator rebuilt and two weeks to get back a remanufactured brake booster after I send my core in. Or it will cost a thousand dollars just to get those two parts from the factory. But if I can put the truck down awhile, I’ve already bought the parts to get it converted to run on waste vegetable oil from the restaurants I service. Meanwhile I work on the Van to get it set up so it’s not hauling a pile of chaos theory. And he’d say, “And that’s cheaper than just buying something already set up that way?” It is cheaper, by at least five thousand dollars, but whether it’s me or somebody else, and however they choose to do it, this is a miniscule part of the absurdity of the technological dance that puts food on the table. Anybody who thinks they’re outside that joke, snickering and looking down on the rest of us, is sadly mistaken. The joke gets especially rich when you take your friends and business acquaintances out to eat.

I need a week to work on modifying the existing compartments and making new ones. Meanwhile, even though I’m in business for myself (with a tyrant for a boss) I’m working for Ford, Isuzu, Dupont, Monsanto, BP, and god knows what corporations exploiting the politics and agriculture of god knows what third world country. And that’s better than just being a writer and artist? No, it’s hell, but it’s the way I’m set up, and it’s the way a lot of us are set up. We don’t all get patrons and grants, and all good work doesn’t get recognized or accepted. That was my job in the first place, to understand when good work was coming out of me and to value and save it. But it just wasn’t as obvious then, as it is now, how stupid people are, how everybody, including editors whose judgment I once trusted, is in the system that’s heading for the wall at 500 miles per hour He’s right, and I’m right. I really do need a new “vehicle”.

If even that would help. Why can’t we, why can’t I, think more clearly? Why would an intelligent nature create us with foggy brains and a language center blind as a bat to motive? But stupid as we are, dogs and cats still at least pretend to love us and birds can talk and apes can sign and gangs of dolphins can plan stunts together in five seconds that Congress and the Bolshoi Ballet couldn’t get done in five years.

It’s sunset. I’ve been working all day on a problem on the condensing unit for the walk-in at Yuki’s Sushi, a problem I can’t solve, so I can’t charge for it. I could charge for it if I was a doctor, but a serviceman can only charge for results. As I’m taking down my ladder. Mr. Kim, a Korean who rents this Japanese Sushi Restaurant, comes up. He says he hates his walk-in cooler. I say I hate it too. Every time I try to take a shower he calls up and the walk-in has another problem. I give him a printed estimate and offer him a list of other companies who might be able to put in a new coil cheaper than I can. I hold out the paper. I say these guys can beat my estimates sometimes because they get stuff in volume. He brushes the list aside. He says, no, you’re the man. Everything you touch here, you fixed, fix this. I don’t feel competent. The system makes some messes nobody can fix. I’m surprised he doesn’t want to farm the job out. Guess he’d rather bitch, and argue and jack me around.

I leave, and a day later he calls again, I reset the high side cutout. He’s scared and exasperated. It’s illogical I say. I’ve talked to other refrigeration people about it. They don’t know what to do either. I install several new controls and ports so I can more accurately read the pressures that are actually going to the controls and discover a drier is clogging up with crap from a previous compressor job. So it’s not my fault, but I spent more hours on this than I can charge. He will still need thirteen hundred dollars worth of work installing a new coil. He doesn’t know why this is taking so long and there’s no way to explain it even if there were no language barrier. His ignorance is his defense. Even if it wasn’t, there’s a limit to what he can afford. And there’s a limit to what I can do without compensation. We’re both locked into the industrial food chain. We both, and don’t we all, stand harried by contradictions on common ground that’s sinking.

The farmer’s against the wall, the seed companies are against the quarterly earnings report to the shareholders, the scientists have to develop where the money goes, the seeds they develop require fertilizer and pesticide, topsoil is being lost by inches every year from irrigation runoff, produce has to be refrigerated, injected with gas and trucked, the food has fewer nutrients and more residual poison so we need more of it and also need supplements. Freon creates a bigger ozone hole, CO2 from suns of centuries past raises the temperature, people turn on more Air conditioning which pumps out more CO2, creating its own feedback loop. All the feedback loops combined, according to some scientists, support and exacerbate each other to the point of irreversibility. And speaking of feedback loops what happened to communication feedback?

I get no answers from Congress or from NPR Science Friday and a lot of other media outlets. Why aren’t they even mentioning either the most dire data and predictions, or the latest technological developments? I don’t care what your conclusion is, I want to know why the debate itself is so ill informed and unstructured. Al Gore was writing a heavy book on the problem before he ran (and knew he won) in ’00, but he gets hammered ad hominem by jealous talk show hosts and even far left outlets like Adbusters. Using that thousand year old strategy of manipulating the poor to take their misery out on each other instead of the rich they say, Look at his lifestyle. He’s just trying to take away your SUVs. Petty jealousy wins, Global Warming is a myth and there’s nothing to worry about. Such nice bars of soap they give us as they lead us to the showers. But I’m screaming into the speaker of my radio again.

In 1990 I covered myself with newspapers about the first gulf war and set them on fire at the Federal Building. “Why?” The firemen asked and I said, “The hotter it gets the faster it gets hotter.” They laughed at me. Maybe I should try stand up. I’ve worked with ice and ice machines and closed circuit refrigeration systems enough that I look at the ice caps and say to myself, once the inertia of the thermal mass is in motion, they only seem to be half gone. They ‘re freakin gone. . Sometimes I allow myself to hope and dream that the hundredth monkey wakes up and solutions are invented and a mass mobilization occurs like in WW II where everybody works on the problem because everybody realizes Jimmy Carter was right in the 80s when he said “Energy conservation is the moral equivalent of war”. And the quarterly earnings report will be naked in its temporary perspective.

But I might as well face facts. Right now, in more ways than I can count, we’re all empty and starving because we have nothing left to eat except fear itself.

I stop at a park and sling a hammock from the rack of the truck. I have to go in to Sushi Garden and clean their condensers from 10:30 P.M to 2 A.M. so I need some sleep. Sushi used to seem so natural and exotic before I started making my own. And until I started seeing how hard it is to keep a restaurant clean, what the stuff we use to clean ice machines & kill slime mold does to the taste of the water, the food that accumulates under the counters, the gas that vegetables produce in refrigerated spaces that eats copper and aluminum & changes the taste of the food. And then there’s the monetary and physical cost of producing and shipping and trucking exotic ingredients thousands of miles. I think my sushi is as good or better than a lot of the dishes you get in restaurants, but I offered Mr. Kim some and he just laughed at me. I guess I’m still doing stand-up. Thanks, you’ve been a great audience tonight, and I really mean that, really.

When I come in, Chun the owner, is just leaving, and Greg, the in-house carpenter is taking over, putting wainscoting on the hall to the restroom. We work without talking for an hour or so, then we talk tools, how you buy one and then need another one, how cheap you can get them from China if you don’t count the cost of doing a lot of product testing for free, and we talk vehicles, what it takes to have adequate transportation whether you buy another one for backup or not. And we look at the food on the floor and the grease in the condensers and we laugh at how insane the whole game has to be. Then we give up trying to make sense of anything and go back to work.

I woke up this morning staring at a mesquite branch just outside the roof hatch of my camper, brown branches, green leaves, yellow crested birds and yellow pollen clusters in the slant rays of the rising sun, infinite gradations of color, shadow and form…

tree lightning bolt, river bed, tree branch, spiderweb, broken glass, cracked mud, lines in a face, bird, fish, dog, on & on, branchings, symmetries, pattern after pattern after…. random?

and now, driving home at 2:30 A.M., the absence of people is very powerful and mysterious. After all the lies, there aren’t many common terms left except to do the best job you can, charge a fair price for your work and just be here with other people, but sometimes I like people a whole lot better when they’re gone. Watching their faces in traffic during the day, they didn’t seem to be all that happy, anyhow. At least the potential that produced them, which feels like an intelligence to me, is definitely here, now, everywhere. Out of this emptiness I think most of our creativity, possibly all of creation came screaming

“Well, here goes nothing!”

And I’m OK with just driving into that darkness, sorry if it doesn’t work for you. It’s especially comforting this last hour before giving up on the adventure of consciousness---permanently---for all we know at the moment of letting go.


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