An idea has been percolating in my brain for about a year. 'Oh, no!' cries the reader. 'Not another one.'
What is life without drip grind between your ears? and a bubbling down below.... ?
Charles' book has helped me define the idea. But first, the genesis of it all: the $5 carrot and the $10 tomato. It is most likely the point every amateur gardener comes to. You can view that tom with a critical eye, note its fine shape, its bloody-good color, and finally its acid, yet sweet, taste, and say to yourself, 'well, at least it's organic.' You might even think that with the addition of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers you could have reaped two tomatoes, but then with the added cost of chemicals your average price would have remained the same and your liver be somewhat disgusted with you. Might as well stick with the compost-crowd and tell Monsanto, etc. to stick it where the sun don't shine.
Having a family garden and a few chickens is not really the answer. For me it isn't. Some really fine gardeners may take a 20 square foot plot and with diligence feed a family of four; I never will. I just know it. I think of strength thru numbers and wistfully wonder who else around is doing the same, and who might know a better way. Oh, the garden and cluckers are a fine and fun way to flesh out our taxpayer-funded retirement, but I think we all sense something more going on. A growing need for locally grown, easily accessible food; local control over what is in that food, too. And a feeling that when the run on Wallyworld ends after the next crisis in empty shelves, wailing and gnashing of teeth in the aisles, you would still like to have a few potatoes in the basement for when the hungry grandkids drop by. If you haven't had similar thoughts then you and I are simply not on the same page - yet. Maybe you missed the Katrina episode on the All-Simpson's Government Channel. "It couldn't happen here" is a phrase that hopefully died last century.
Charles doesn't see, or hopes he doesn't, the end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI). No person with dependents wants to think of a time when we b(h)unker down in the basement armed to the teeth, peeing into the filter system that provides us with potable water and breathing lightly to conserve oxygen. That is just ridiculous. Some of you will think that is exactly what is coming; and if it comes to your neighborhood you will wish you had never envisioned such a scenario. No, Charles' idea, gradual devolution, seems more appropriate: federal control will flow to local institutions as lines blur, the tax base dwindles and the unhinging increases - that is when the doorway into new ideas comes slightly open. Complexity decreases when it becomes ill-afforded. It is not an overnight process, doesn't come with a flash and a bang, but with a whimper.
One point that Charles makes that I like is that neither Capitalism nor Marxist/Socialist thinking offer us any political solution. That is because neither takes into account the most important factor: human behavior. Political systems want things neater than messy genetic dispositions and ill-concealed emotions grant us.
Inevitably each of us is self-interested; we are designed to survive and carry on the race. It is only a push, maybe the gentlest push, for natural self-interest to blossom into unruly greed and self-aggrandizement. Nothing strange here. It lives in each of us. We are born to survive. The noble savage is grabbing what he can to get thru to next year. It is just in "us" as humans. Political doctrines don't take this simple reality in. 'The Capitalist market will be self-regulating' and actually good for all of us; 'the Socialist State will be run by altruistic men of honor': neither system will induce, or allow, an elite class to arise, gradually usurping all the power in sight. Bullshit! Wealth flows to strong hands - grasping hands that overlook the value of communal success, that wagon we all ride in sooner or later.
This lack of a political answer to 'who we are and how we live' has bothered me for some time. I guess I kept looking to existing institutions to show me how we could live together equitably; nothing at all was coming to mind. Political entropy at work? The order-of-sharing that sees all fed and comforted melts across time into accrual at the top; the strong always grow stronger. They are only men. It is their bent. Nothing that relies on the inherent goodness of man springs forward as workable policy in my mind. Anarchy? No, nothing viable there. The shark tank way past feeding time; the small succumb first; the big begin to rend the big. We are animals and like beasts who need a cage to live among men we need a stout framework of some sort in order to prevent our skinning each other and selling the hides on the corner next day. Without structure everyone backslides into a fret of worry and grab, and maybe later a little glee - 'Hey, I am a big winner! I own Park Place and Broadway.' Our present system of goverment has simply not been able to give us a working structure that recognizes the need for common effort and common good. Our best intentions are eroded by the insistent inner man who always wants a bit more. We need structure to curtail us.
Perhaps nature does not allow that we should have a system whereby the weak survive alongside the strong. Perhaps the gene pool recoils from such dilution; the weak are shoved outside the ringed herd into the snow - meet the wolves. But this seems most inconvenient once we have learned to care about one another. If fairness is an inbuilt trait then it is weaker by far than the age-old need to grab hold and rend in the eye of hunger and desire. We do not live easily with ourselves. We care only until it begins to hurt, maybe not all that much.
People are people. People do not, in any numbers, self-regulate and share, not without compelling reasons. We use up what we can, the low-hanging fruit goes first, and then we hunt our own kind looking for the next burdened tree.
Hence Radical Self-Reliance - Charles' term. He states: "...the foundation of radical self-reliance is working with others for reciprocal benefit... " Under the load of debt, increasing hourly, at all levels of government our cherished entitlements, Medicare, Social Security, pension benefits will all disappear or be priced in such over-printed dollars that we can't even buy groceries. That will be the individual plight. We will need each other to survive and prosper in this climate. If we remain only individuals we are in trouble indeed.
I am trying to think about what happens when my pension from California, a bankrupt state, and my Social Security, from a bankrupt nation, stop, or become worthless. Pat and I have a very comfortable retirement even though we retired at 20% of our base salary and the amount isn't that much. But it is enough, more than enough. We put money in the bank, we give some away, we still spend foolishly. I think this is all coming to an end. It may take 5 or 10 years, though I doubt this as government budgets are already beyond salvation, or it may come after we are composted. Either way it is worth thinking about right now. Something has to give. According to those who control the economy, and I won't even go into that, it is the Middle Class who will give and give. Yeah, you and me. We are the expendable, dependable layer of society. When budgets get busted someone has to ante up. Us is it.
None of the above is said in recrimination. I do not advocate lynching the bankers. A pointless exercise. Maybe they will learn to pick beans. Who knows? While I could never find an excuse for Bernie Madoff I do think maybe he is just Joe Sixpack drawn large. I, personally, don't want to waste my energy hating anyone. Years ago, 20 or more, I lost a hefty amount of money to a junior-Bernie who made slick promises from beside his Ferrari; I bought them. He went to prison. I hated him until my bowels groaned. Never again. I had strayed outside any normal bounds of community. I had no thought of integrity or trust or who might be depended on in some knowable way when I gave him money. I had believed in a man who had no self-respect, who offered me a great return on my money; just a man. I did learn something from the experience: greed is as powerful as fear.
Pat and I try to consider not just how we will get bread on the table and oil in the furnace in the future, but what we can leave to our kids to help them out. Their lives are not going to be as easy as ours were. Ours was indeed a blessed generation. Talk about being born in the right time and place; we lucked out big time. Think about it before you wail: even in a rented trailer living on food stamps your life is easier, safer, longer and more comfortable than that of nobility during the middle ages. You like winter veggies from Chile, electronic toys, heat in your home, an E.R. to go to? Where was that and a whole lot more in the not so distant past?
Radical Self Reliance says you will be responsible for yourself. It says we can only weather such a time, as that which I think is coming, if local ownership of production exists. It can only exist if each of us actually produces, not shuffling papers, not arranging loans, not working in tourist spas, but really making something someone else can use, or offering a service that has material value. Something that can be traded if not sold. The first thing that comes to my mind is food. Plumbers and mechanics are pretty close behind, but only after we have eaten. First we eat, then we fix the hole in the roof.
My thought for the last year has been that we, Pat and I, need to be personally involved in seeing to the security of the community we live in. We are lucky that we actually live in a community. Many of you don't. You never rely on neighbors, or they on you. There is no network of interdependency to back you up. There is only the vanishing safety-net of entitlements - Seniors on Cat Food will not be a powerful lobby in 2012. A problem for us is that we are not social creatures. We know a few neighbors, but we do not belong to any community network. We didn't join the Elks and Daughters of the Confederacy. The community network is primary; it has to exist. We are not presently really in it. We lurk on its theoretical fringes.
The end point of all this thinking is that I have contacted a local land trust to see what our options are if we were to buy a small farm and open it to communal use. Don't ask me how this works. I have not a clue in hell. We don't want to take on a farm - can you see us limping about and muttering? "The pigs are out again." Grunt, cough, spit; look around to see who's going to do something about it.
And we don't want to just give up the capital we have saved to help our kids. But this capital, I am hoping, may be of some use to the community while being preserved. I figure we, or just I, if Pat doesn't want to try the ride, can afford to pay cash for a small farm and with help arrange the matter in such a way that the farm then produces food for the community. Even jobs, for those who want to dig potatoes and shovel manure. In five years a job that feeds your family might be of greater value than the job that presently pays you $60k a year. Hell, in two years.
Like I say, I don't know where this goes. It is murky water for me. I just wanted to get my thinking on paper; it helps me clarify. If you have stayed with me this far I thank you. I like to think most of us will be on the train when it leaves the station - not to stretch my metaphors any more egregiously than usual......
The editor reads the above and says, briefly: "balderdash! poppycock! fuck me dead - he's gone off again! my head hurts." I am sure she will offer a more productive assessment soon. She does say, 'count me in,' as an afterthought. All is well in the Kingdom of Discontent.
What keeps me from joining Don in his apocalyptic appraisal is my age. At three score and thirteen, I’ve reached geezerhood. I rebel. Geezers have always maintained that the world is going straight to hell. “No more cakes and ale!” they mutter as they circle the drain. “We’ve seen the best of it; what’s left for you is sour and tawdry.” I take this to be a rather mean-spirited approach to dying. I’d rather go out thinking that I will have just missed something wonderful around the corner. Someone will discover a new color! We’ll pass through the tail of a comet that destroys all weapons of mass destruction! Shame will be reinvented! (Never, never, never in my long and loquacious life have the words, “balderdash” or “poppycock” passed my lips. “Fuck-me-dead”… maybe once or twice.)
A few days later and Pat has written to the Country of the Three Daughters, the provinces being Morg, Cara and Gill, to speak to them of my, now our, idea. She doesn't write to them for advice, or permission, I think, but for a sort of solace I just don't seem able to offer. I am all linear, avanti , and shoulder-to-the-wheel. There is a solace women get best from other women; a silent communion, eyes meeting, reasonless understanding written on the sky between, just the silence of knowing. I am not too good at that.
(We had dinner in a small cafe where the food is wonderful this eve. Pat said: "Pretend we are in a bistro in Paris; look into my eyes and tell me things." I am not too good at that, either. I stutter and look down to admire the silverware. Here I spent years thinking I was a romantic sort.)
We have feelers out on our idea. It is really pretty exciting to think of being a part of a community solution to problems that have stymied larger institutions and minds. Pat thinks things cannot possibly pan out as I forsee. The center really does hold, the world's edifices remain intact; we trundle on as before. But I ask you "for what span has that 'before' that we now take as normal appeared in the annals of man?" Not long at all. A couple of decades. A blip. Our nation's total debt is beyond counting and cannot be repaid; there is no integrity nor trust left in the halls of either government or business. I despair to see us going into the next decade with our eyes on the great recovery, the resumption of our middle class ways, endless oil and government largess. I am going to go sit with Pat now and watch Thomas Hampson sing in the new year.
Someone asks where I come up with the stuff I write. It isn't as if I scour the inside of my skull looking for ideas; the stuff is just there. It may not be well-managed, or even coherently presented, but it is innate. I think that is true of all of us. I believe we all have our own intellligence, our own art. We don't all manage to get it out very well, but it is well worth looking for. Maybe that is one definition of the human spirit.
The internet is a big factor. I recall years ago being told that an education wasn't what you actually learned but that you learned how to get information when you needed it. We have that in spades with a search engine. I come up with any three words of a quote that is fomenting somewhere in my brain. I put it into Google and suddenly have the entire quote, its historical application, arcane uses, and the quoter's bio. This is fabulous - it makes me look very erudite!
Charles likens the internet to a new 'commons'. The link gives a brief idea: a common resource, e.g. grazing land, is shared and beneficial to the entire community. Once it is put into private hands, enclosed - fenced, profit over-rides common good. Local control is gone. The rich get richer, etc. As I typed in the word Google above I thought how fragile our 'commons' is. How long will we be able to put our minds to pasture in this rich, rich field. How long until a corporate entity - "sponsor" - erects the fences that will exclude some, charge the rest all the market will bear, and monitor us all for suitability? This new commons is what makes positive change going forward possible. Only if we communicate with one another can we organize sustainabile cooperation.
Ara chimes in on the last letter of '09; I ask if I can quote him and he chimes again.
Well, you sound truly lost in the jungle with your shadow but the sun isn't shining so your shadow doesn't exist . I guess I am blessed with not wanting to know the ending; I don't want to try and figure out the ending to the movie, I want "it" to happened to me. I want the surprise. Does that make me neurologically lazy or just content to know I don't want to know? Or maybe it is the years of heavy drinking that has caused my brain to stop having original thoughts, but I can follow the hell out of a set of IKEA directions for assembling a table. All and all an interesting read, pat your self on the back job well done, the audience likes. But you and the pink stuff!!!!!
Narcissism is not yours alone; we all like to appear in your letters, or at least I do. It is one of those nice suprises to see your self in others thoughts. So yes you can use it. I don't really get offended by your man-rants about the pink. Zoe said you thought I took offense before when you were talking about your sausage and that is not the case. I guess it is just a little embarrassing and I don't really know how to react as you being my father and all and you were never the father who said sexual things about women. I can't recall you ever saying "look at her she is fine" or anything similar. Try not to infer to much meaning into my written chat as one can never tell what one really means thru this distant form of communication, might as well be Morse code. The harder I hit the crescent wrench against the metal hull doesn't mean I am angry. if you have concerns on what I am meaning just ask. it's all good except when you moon the company!!!
As you can see the block has been chipped. Son of Letters from Maine lies around the corner, less discursive but equally bright and honest. Go Ara!
And with that final note from Pat we fade into the great bleached northern winter. don e.