What’s Missing?

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Published on Pray for Calamity on My 30, 2018

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My farm truck is fairly old.  It’s a Ford F-150 and it was made in 1992.  While not a vehicle I need every day, if there is a load of firewood or manure to be moved, it is the only thing that will do the trick.  So last week when I went to fire it up and it wouldn’t start, I was frustrated to say the least. Not only was my day’s plate of errands full, but beyond that the truck was blocking our narrow driveway preventing another vehicle from passing.

Lifting my daughter out of the cab I took a deep breath. An azure blue sky beamed overhead as I shifted the truck into neutral, placed my hand firmly against the steel doorframe, and began heaving with my legs.  Slowly the tires began to roll backwards as I used my free hand to steer the truck onto the grass under the shade of a hickory tree.

“OK, fire it,” he yelled. I turned the key in the ignition, and got the nya-nya-nya-nya sound of the starter motor. My friend was under the hood holding the handle of a thin screwdriver, the tip of which was in a wire running out of the distributor.

“Well, you’re getting good spark.” I am not a gear-head by any stretch of the imagination, but I attempt to fix what I can on my cars, which also means I tend to prefer older cars, hence the 1992 Ford.  However, whenever I have an issue I cannot readily tend to myself, I have a friend I call over who is a far better mechanic than myself.

After changing out my cap, rotor, plugs, wires, and ignition coil, and checking to make sure I had fuel pressure at the rail and gas getting into the cylinder, I was stumped. My friend was stumped too.  At this point, it could be numerous things preventing the engine from catching, from a timing issue to a failing in the computer.

Computers in cars. Goddammit why? Even the 92’s have them, primitive as they may be by today’s standards.  Looking at the myriad different color wires running in a tight bundle to the truck’s computer, I have a brief flash, a memory of my friend’s 1970 Ford Mustang. This is a car my friend bought maybe twenty years ago and had worked to restore. The engine was so simple, so clean. Its functional simplicity was like a Japanese tea ceremony.  A loud, roaring, ground shaking tea ceremony.

Mass shootings are almost a weekly occurrence in the United States these days. In fact, more students have died at school in 2018 than US troops have died in combat zones. For a nation with troops on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Niger, and lord knows where else, that is a morose statistic indeed. After each shooting event, there is a ritual of news coverage and political handwringing, and somewhere in there amongst all of the constitution waving and twitter snark, someone will suggest that the tragedy is the result of the fact that the perpetrator was crazy.

It is a simple argument on its face, for of course, who but a crazy person would commit an act of mass murder? For a particularly shining example of a seemingly very mentally unhinged person acting out violently, we only have to harken back a few weeks to April of this year, when a young man walked into a Nashville, Tennessee Waffle House – naked – brandishing an AR-15.  After fatally shooting four people, another young man, James Shaw, who had been hiding in the bathroom rushed out and disarmed the murderer, who then fled.

Upon capturing the suspect, it was revealed that he had a very storied past of behavior that was more than bizarre. For instance, he had gone to a public pool wearing a lady’s housecoat and exposed his genitals to the lifeguards. Apparently he was under the impression that musician Taylor Swift was stalking him, and he had even once approached the secret service at the White House and demanded to inspect the grounds.

If killers are merely crazy, then there isn’t much we can do about them, I guess the argument goes. We can only throw up our hands and roll the dice every time we go to a movie theater or a restaurant or a high school. Unless someone asks the next most obvious question: What is making so many people crazy?

Or perhaps more accurately: What is making so many Americans crazy?

Or perhaps even more accurately: What is making so many American white men crazy?

Or perhaps even more accurately: What is making so many American white men lash out violently at those around them? 

Of course, I am not the first to ask this question or a variant of it, and the easy answers have flowed forth in a torrent.

Epidemiological studies are often used to make some sort of nutritional claim, like, “Eating pasta helps you lose weight.” These make for great headlines (which is why Barilla pasta finances them) but usually make for a terrible understanding of nutrition. The reason is co-factors. Nutritional epidemiology is basically running surveys. Get a group of people, ask them what they eat, examine their lives over a set window of time, spit out a result.

However, putting aside for a moment that these are not double blind, controlled, randomized, clinical trials which can actually tease out causality, we have to look at all of the lifestyle factors that aren’t being considered. Is this person a smoker? Are they under a lot of stress? Do they drink? Do they exercise? And even after all of that, when some headline about some new epidemiological study tells you that eating this or that thing causes cancer, we have to ask, “Was adding the new thing bad, or is absence of an old thing the problem?”

So when a kid walks into his Santa Fe, Texas high school with a shotgun and executes teachers and students, there will be plenty of talking heads and social media policy gurus who settle on the idea that the young man responsible is crazy. Some will even venture to posit that this modern epidemic of craziness stems from the addition of the internet, video games, cell phones, or movies to young people’s daily activities.

Perhaps we should not just look to what things have been added to the lives of young men, but also look to what has been replaced.

What’s missing?

Social media use has been linked to increasing rates of depression. Is this because people get anxiety seeking the approval that comes in the form of shares and likes? Is it because of the increased level of scrutiny people face when a large portion of their lives becomes public? Or is it because people spend more time engaging with other humans in a non-intimate way, interfacing with keyboards and glowing touchscreens instead of in person with all of the gesture, eye contact, subtle humor, and other nuance of face-to-face interaction?  Is it the new thing, or the lack of the old?

Capitalism is built on a simple premise: Locate a resource, use labor to convert it into a good, sell the good at a profit, repeat.  For generations this has meant a sprawling march of death moving over the globe, seizing lands, razing them, expropriating the resources available, subjugating the masses to labor, and leaving mountains of waste in the rear view. This has made life interesting indeed. In the US, and likely much of the west, even high-end goods are so plentiful that they become valueless nearly instantly. Peruse the racks at any Goodwill and you will find DVD players and video game systems less than ten years old haphazardly strewn about. Yet the songbirds are going silent, and the insects are vanishing.

In any given town in America you could hop on Craigslist and find a functioning small car for less than a thousand dollars. You could certainly find a dollar store of some kind chock full of sugary drinks, vape pipes, cheap home goods, and a discount bin of blu-ray discs. Everything is available everywhere in disgusting heaps of material excess, all so the individual can return to their isolated apartment to enjoy this stuff alone. Atomized. Singular. Powerless. Meaningless. Then they can hoist it into the dumpster before going out into a dying world for more.

Every year I go on an extended camping trip with friends. It is important to me that I spend time with people I care deeply about, who care deeply about me, and that we sit directly on the Earth. We share food together. We laugh and play games. It is a spiritual recharge to head down to a lake or river with one another, and to swim in the cold water, mossy rocks underfoot. At night we tell stories around a fire. Wood smoke whirls towards the charcoal blackness above and we breathe in the night together, and then exhale.   Sitting in a circle we sing. We lean in onto eachothers shoulders.  We slowly fumble towards our respective beds and sleep that good, out of doors sleep.

For the record, I do not actually think that Americans are any crazier than anyone else in the developed world.   I think living in ways that are completely foreign to our evolutionary self throws us out of whack. Eating foods foreign to our guts, sitting for long stretches of time, staring at screens, existing in digital worlds, working jobs which have no direct benefit to ourselves, financial struggle, the bombardment of advertising, the bombardment of propaganda, authoritarian power structures, the almost total lack of ability to effect our world, the list goes on.

There are the things we are doing that are new, and the things we aren’t doing because of it.  Touching the Earth.  Touching plants.  Singing with friends.  Wrestling with friends. Smelling a fire.  Walking long distances through unpredictable, non-man made spaces. Harvesting wild foods. Drinking from springs.  Touching bone.  Touching flesh.  Listening to owls.  Staring at stars.  Engaging in ceremonies thoughtfully designed to highlight our sense of place and wonder within this great and beautiful and tragic mystery called life.

We live lives foreign to our physiology and damaging to our souls in a rapidly changing context that is always requiring that we prove our value to people we do not know.

I cannot help but to think that these things place a massive stress on us, all of us. Despite having everything we seemingly need in the form of food and shelter, something is not right. As we are all individuals with individual circumstances, how we crash land through the plinko game of modern capitalist civilization is anyone’s guess. Some of us adapt, some of us suffer in silence, many of us self medicate, and a tiny fraction – who also happen to have been mystified by narratives about their place in society due to their gender – pick up a gun and kill.

Is it all this new stuff we are surrounded by? Is it something we have lost? Is it a dynamic combination of both?  Who knows, exactly?

What I do know is that in the United States guns are pretty easy to come by. We probably aren’t any crazier than anyone else. The crippling physical and psychological stress of the modern industrial world reaches far outside of US borders.   We just make it a lot easier to slaughter one and other.

If we want to keep the guns around, the culture has to change. I, for one, would happily trade this economy for actual, functioning community.  Though something tells me it would be a hard sell, especially to those who benefit most from our fracture. Until then, the bi-weely festival of carnage is likely to continue undeterred.

Better keep the flag at half mast.

We had fuel, we had air, we had spark, and still that old truck wouldn’t start. Biting the bullet, I had the old mule towed to a nearby mechanic’s shop. Days later he called me on the phone to tell me I had a dead MAP sensor, which is a little doodad that effectively controls fuel system pressure.  A damn doodad.

I had everything I needed for proper function, just not in the exact right amounts at the exact right time.   The devil is in the details.

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