What’s Missing?

May 30, 2018 § 16 Comments

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 each other’s 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 another.

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-weekly 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.




§ 16 Responses to What’s Missing?

  • Brendon Crook says:

    Wonderful essay, Thanks for posting it Tdos

  • David Veale says:

    Summed up many of my own thoughts to a T. Also — check out the SSRI connection with school shootings. According to one source, 95% of all shooters are on or in withdrawal from them, but for some reason mainstream media sources are loathe to anger their pharmaceutical advertisers and discuss this. School shootings were all but unheard of before these drugs came out. I know they were involved at Columbine, Virginia Tech, the colorado “joker” theater shooting, and many others. Oftentimes it’s mentioned somewhere that the shooter was on anti-depressants, which are most often SSRIs.

    • terry gerych says:

      david veale, very good point about the pharma drug connection to mass shootings, if accurate. i wouldn’t be surprised if it is. it reminded me of a very thought provoking book i read a few years ago that made a scientific case that big pharma’s drugs for treating ‘mental illness’ have made the problem worse, not better. very interesting read. as so often seems to be the case in america, the profits of big business come before public welfare, and scientific facts be damned!

      america does seem to be rather exceptional in putting profits ahead of people. td0s’ essay was lovely and provocative as usual, but i disagreed on the point of america not being crazier than other developed countries. i think it is on average at least a little crazier, thanks to the outsized role that private greed or big business plays in public affairs, along with the outsized role of dogmatic religion. and there’s probably other factors as well. but i do agree with the basic conclusion that living highly artificial lives separate from nature plays a big role in creating alienation and ‘mental illness’, not just in america, but everywhere civilization reigns supreme.

      here’s link to the book mentioned above:

      • td0s says:

        I dont live in Australia, Germany, or China, but I feel like if one looked for it, they would find a lot of “crazy” there. Industrialism is everywhere. So is mass media.

      • David Veale says:

        A friend of mine (a fellow american) once related a conversation he’d had with a German friend of his, who was asking why Americans seemed to be so crazy. My friend’s response? “Think about it… over the last few hundred years, whenever a group of crazies formed in your country, where did you send them?”

        Early America was long viewed as a convenient dumping ground for less desirable elements of society (as viewed by the elites anyway) in Europe, and though I think we’ve come quite a long ways since then, it does seem as if some of the culture has remained through this day.

        A German relative of mine once asked me nearly the same thing, noting how nuts our president (Dubya, at the time) was, and wondering who would elect such a man. Seems like we’re still on a downhill run in that respect.

  • Dennis A Mitchell says:

    Something is fundamentally wrong here in the land of the free….

  • MountainHiker says:

    After years of reading your blog, other blogs and Morris Berman’s books and blog, I have concluded that the US has never been about community. Rather, it is about making a buck. End of story.

    I have thought about this myself for years. Like the time I mentioned to my neighbors how stupid it is for each one of us to own a lawn mower when three or four of us could share one quite easily. I’m not sure if they looked at me as if I were an alien or if I needed to be locked up.

    I tend toward Morris Berman’s assessment that it’s about the hustle in the US. It’s not just the nuts who came here or were sent here from other countries, those groups included their predatory hustlers and sociopaths, many of whom came here on their own accord since they saw it as a fertile hunting ground.

    • td0s says:

      Berman is iin a class all his own. I couldnt hold toilet paper for him, let alone a candle to him.

      • MountainHiker says:

        You do quite well with your thoughts and writing. I enjoy reading your ideas to help round out my own thinking about what the hell is going on. Keep up the great work!

  • Liz says:

    “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.”

    Great post, as usual. This quote was an especial bit for me. I remember going to the Goodwill bins, aka the Outlet, where stuff like one-legged knock-off Transformers, double-distressed bedazzled jean skorts, and Full House DVDs made a pit-stop before heading to the landfill. The workers rolled in bins of such detritus on forklifts and hoisted them into the sales troughs, causing the sound of shattering figurines and wailing electronics to echo through the warehouse. This death song of crushed and battered items brought the bargain hunters running to rummage through the newest pile of rubble. It always felt so post-apocalyptic. The excess was disgusting, but the deals couldn’t be beat. If you were in the market for jean skorts and Full House DVDs, that is.

  • Sissyfuss says:

    I remember the author Trevainian describe Americans as having a merchant mentality, that we are taught from birth to be sleazy salesmen of anything fungible. This includes the totality of Mother Earth. We will sell anything from our children to our kidneys because that’s what merchants do. We will continue to put a price tag on the priceless because our hubris sees it as de rigour, the most normal practice amidst the madness.

  • Shad says:

    You do find “crazy” everywhere. However. when 50% of a population, including the countries leader, suggest that corpses are props and crying babies are crisis actors, you cement your position on the “crazy” spectrum at shit house rat.

  • steve says:

    I ask myself this all the time. In many forms, that is what a lot of the words we churn out are asking. What changed? What is missing? How do we fix this? What can/should I do to be part of a healing?

    There is no answer coming from above.

    Even if one discounts the media bad news industry and induced endless panic, there remains a vague feeling of malaise, of slow decline, of the center not holding, of impending collapse. We all sense that something is not right.

    A car or truck is orders of magnitude simpler than a human culture, and there is no shade tree mechanic/god who can pop the hood on our psychosocial black box and twiddle some settings. So what to do?

    Maybe touching more soil, telling jokes face to face, singing, planting a garden, some intentional and specific combination of sensory and interpersonal patterns would spark our collective will to reconnect with the other, to once again sense the immanence, and turn the tide. The cultural equivalent of a doodad. Switch it out, and bam, we are firing on all cylinders. Wouldn’t that be neat? Don’t see it.

    Civilizations have risen and fallen in the past, is it time for our reset button? Is that why you pray for calamity? Is that the least bad alternative when we just can’t figure out what is missing?

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