Fine Lines

August 24, 2018 § 5 Comments

Wind rushes in through the fully open windows of my truck as I wind down the rural highway. The air conditioning doesn’t work, but even if it did I wouldn’t use it. There is hardly a straightaway to be had, just one long bend to the right and then back to the left as the road follows the bottomland between hills. Where it’s flat, patches of brown cornstalks grow tall on either side of the snaking pavement. Mostly there are trees. Deep green leaves of walnut and maple. Sycamore leaves already show hints of yellow, folding inward, preparing to drop in a few more weeks time.

The sky above is demarcated by dark clouds. A stark line where the azure blue meets the dense gray. I depress the accelerator, not wanting to be caught in the coming summer storm, hoping that if I pick up the pace I might just make it home before the imminent downpour. Golden sunlight still defines the shape and hue of the masses of trees on either side of the roadway, but the smell of the air portends the certainty of the coming rain.

Come September of this year, we will pass the ten year anniversary of the collapse of the investment firm Lehman Brothers, and the kick off of the sub prime mortgage fueled financial crisis. Interestingly, on August 22, 2008, shares of Lehman Brothers closed up by five percent. By the closing bell of September 9th, the share value had dropped by half. Six days later, on September 15th, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy.

In October of 2008, the stock markets of the world began experiencing major drops. The Dow Jones Industrial in the United States, which had peaked at 14,164 in October of 2007, fell to 6,469 by March of 2009. As of this writing, ten years later, the Dow sits at an inconceivable 25,732, a stratospheric value made possible by the gift of a decade of free money to the investment class from the Federal Reserve Bank.

There are now, as there were in the years preceding the crash of 2008, voices crying from the wilderness that these numbers represent nothing more than a bubble which is bound to burst, and likely soon. However, most of the very serious people who work in finance are more afraid of missing out on the largesse of upside than they are of the potential ruin of the downside.

And we regular folk who have no say in any of it can only sit back in steerage and watch, waiting for the music on the upper decks to suddenly stop and for the panic to set in. When that moment comes, will we be caught up in it? Will we be laid off again?   Because there is one truth that crosses time, and that is when the rich start losing money, they stop the bleeding by robbing everyone else. Maybe they foreclose on a house, or close a plant, or cut a benefit, or just hand themselves a few trillion dollars to fill the gap, but dammit, they will not, sell the vacation home in the Vineyard!

Twenty years ago I was a senior in high school. Gas cost ninety cents per gallon, and I drove a 1987 Ford Escort station wagon in which I had installed an expensive CD player so that I could listen to my favorite music as I moved about my Illinois suburb. I had a job at TGI Fridays that was within the apron of a local mall, and I dated a girl who I met on the internet on an Indy music bulletin board, but I lied about that part, because back then it would have seemed very uncool to have met a romantic partner online. Instead, I told my friends I met her at the local record store. Oh yeah, and no one owned a cell phone.

Paradigms change, and they change faster than we recognize. Sometimes, it isn’t until we sit down and carefully compare the present with the past that we can come to grips with just how much has changed. It was in the spring of my senior year that the massacre at Columbine High School happened, an event which cast a pallor of horror across American society. Nowadays, if a school shooting tallies less than ten dead, it barely warrants a Twitter condolence.

After 9-11, and with the rollout of the Iraq war, came the invention of the “free speech zone,” a small caged area in which people were allowed their first amendment right to assemble and to petition their government for redress of grievance. The NSA began listening to any and every electronic communication in the land, the fourth amendment be damned. Environmental saboteurs like Daniel McGowan began being slapped with “terrorism enhancements” and sent to maximum security prisons.

A paradigm is a comparison, a setting of things side by side, and it is when we do so that we see sharply not only what we have lost with time, but how quickly we have lost it.

For those who find themselves concerned with the cascading calamities of our age; the ecocide and mass extinctions, climate change and resource depletion, etc. it is easy to begin wondering when everything will go to hell in a hand basket. This is often expressed with the question, “When will the shit hit the fan?” Arm chair analysts abound on the internet, and guesses and prognostications range and vary. Depending on the specific variables used as tea leaves for the individual reading, be it a focus on an impending Blue Ocean Event, stock market crash, massive crop failure, or global war, you can find diviners scheduling impending doom as soon as next month, or more commonly, as a process of deterioration that washes over civilization over the next century, punctuated by bursts of failure and suffering in various locales.

Predictions are difficult, it is said, because they are about the future. Perhaps it is not predictions then, which are relevant. Perhaps instead the curious and concerned individual should focus on paradigms, and the rate at which their evolution accelerates.

At what rate are we watching climate change unfold? At what rate are we watching resources grow more scarce?   I can say pretty confidently that socially, the world around me looks and behaves a lot differently than it did ten years ago. People’s expectations about their future are vastly different. Hell, if I look to what I was being told my senior year of high school those twenty years ago, as to what to expect from the future and how to prepare myself for it, with the common attitudes amongst people of a similar age today, I can see that nearly all hope has been demurely snuffed out.

This extends beyond an individual’s life plan to achieve career goals and to attain the “American Dream.” The general attitude now about major issues such as climate change or the destruction of the world’s oceans is one of essential hopelessness, whereby when I was young it all seemed so solvable, so long as we all pitched in and spread “awareness.”  Now there is a level of acknowledgement that all that remains is to endure it, to perhaps try as a single person to not make it much worse, but to accept that as a society, we’re fucked.

Of course, technophiles lost in their collective Gene Rodenberry fantasy still believe that a whiz bang solution to all of our woes lies just around the corner, and the uber capitalists among them think that a billionaire titan of private industry will be the one to bestow it upon us. At the same time, the news racks now boast a variety of survival themed monthly magazines, apocalypse porn dominates the realm of TV and film, and a generation of Instagrammers stare at their glowing screens, smiling down and reposting color corrected images of backyard poultry and wild harvested foods they’ve come to fetishize.

For every fool still smiling down in the muck, trudging towards the electric light at the end of the tunnel, there is someone dragging their fingers along the brick, feeling for an exit.

When will everything fall down around us? When will that critical link in the web of life be driven into extinction? When will that Chinese trader post a sell order that kicks out the global financial house of cards?  When will a global heatwave cause massive famine and the deaths of millions?  I don’t know.

Every once in a while there is a big event, but every day there is an imperceptible shift, and when you turn and look in the rearview, the comparison between then and now is stark. The line that divides the way things were from the way they are is usually very thin indeed.

My neck cranes upward to the deep blue of the night sky, following the smoke that pours off of the burning wood piled on the gravel before me.  The moon’s white light is stifled by the tree canopy, but its effort doesn’t go unnoticed, as streams of silver break free of the leafy hold and land gently on the steel roof of my house.

Today’s work is done, and tomorrow’s stands ready to call when the sun rises once again. I breathe in the evening and wonder what this little corner of the world will look like in another five years.  The most stable forces that I know are the seasons, and in the coolness, I can feel the summer slowly tilting towards the fall.  The regularity of blooming flowers are a calendar of the year.  I rely on gray dogwoods, day lilies, and a host of mushrooms to anchor me, to guide my procession through the world.

Without them, I would be lost.

 

 

 

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