Friday, November 29, 2013

The Privilege of Friendship

The other day I saw a television programme about a killer whale that had been separated from its pod at a very young age and had turned to humans for friendship. Killer whales, like humans, are social creatures, and one of the ways they cement the relationships that form their group is through body contact.
This young whale would hang out at the harbour, approach fishing and other boats, big and small, to play with the boats themselves and to be scratched and caressed by eager hands. When the whale was really happy it would turn on its back and 'rest' alongside the boat it had come to greet. Of course many of the humans were delighted with this whale who would let them pet it, who would frolic alongside, and sometimes gently push their boats around, or play with the equipment—taking a water-filled hose in its mouth and spraying anything within reach; scratching its back on the small second engines called 'kickers' that sport fishing boats carry for trolling, and a multitude of other activities.
As the whale grew, however, some of the its play began to damage equipment and to anger some of the boat owners. The marine mammal protection agency then proceeded to act with extreme stupidity. First it forbade whale watchers or any other person to get near the whale or to play with or touch it. The agency even forbade people to look the whale in the eye, although visual contact is very important, even essential to a whale's well-being. The damage only got worse. Then the agency decided to capture the whale, to try to find its pod or to place it in an aquarium. This plan enraged the local people, especially the indigenous tribes, who regarded the whale as sacred: their recently deceased chief had foretold that he would return as a whale, and this one had appeared the week he died.
A tussle began between the marine officials and the people who supported the whale's need for social contact: the indigenous peoples took to the water in their long canoes with a drummer, and, singing and paddling, they led the whale away from the trap. The marine officials countered by luring the whale back towards the trap with their own small boat. This confrontation went on for days to the exhaustion of all involved. At one point the whale was in the trap but for some mysterious reason, no-one closed it.
Wiser heads than those at the marine mammal agency realised that the whale needed human contact, to fill the gap in its life created by the absence of others of its own species. People began to volunteer to keep the whale occupied during the day and applied for the appropriate permits. The marine mammal agency would have none of it. It stuck to its guns, even in the face of a scientific marine mammal expert who said, 'I normally quantify everything in my work, but this situation is beyond all quantification.'
So people began to take matters into their own hands. Disobeying the order to leave the whale alone, they would go out and entice it away from the boat traffic it was upsetting and play with it. People were willing to go out in shifts. As long as the whale had someone to play with, and to look in the eye, it did no damage at all. But as soon as the whale was left alone, it resumed its mischievous behaviour.
Finally the inevitable happened: the whale swam into, or was sucked into, the the powerful propeller of a log-sorting tug. During the tug captain's radio transmission to the coast guard reporting the bad news, he made no effort to conceal the fact that he was weeping. The indigenous people held a funeral ceremony for the whale, which a lot of non-First Nations people attended as well. 
The death of the whale could be laid directly at the door of the so-called marine mammal protection agency, which, with extreme stupidity, had forbidden the resolution that had been staring it in the face. The whale had offered friendship across the species barrier, but the agency, even in the face of all the evidence (however non-quantifiable) had refused to recognize the whale as a subject capable of complex emotions, a consciously thinking, lonely, yearning social being.
Many of the people who were interviewed during the whale's lifetime spoke of how much it meant to them that the whale so obviously wanted to cross the species barrier to interact with humans, how the privilege of close contact with the mysterious other that was the whale had not only made them see nature with more respect, but how the whale had somehow mirrored something of what it meant to be human, even while never losing that otherness.
By the end of the film I was blubbering. I don't cry easily, but this time I completely broke down. I thought of all the whales I'd known in Alaska, some of which have been described earlier in this blog; I remembered how the same pod of white-sided dolphins would come and play with my boat on most occasions when I crossed a certain patch of water. I remembered seeing a horse, a dog and a raven playing together—a game instigated by the raven, of course. And it was the thought of Raven, along with the Alaska that I had known, which no longer exists, that made me weep the hardest.
It is now a commonplace that as we scorn relationships with animals and as we fail to protect the environment, we scorn our own humanity. We have only to look around us to the wrecked ecology to understand how thoroughly this is the case. We are not just destroying the environment, we are destroying our selves. As the oceans become acidic, as the temperature rises and the climate warms—all due to heedless human agency—we move farther and farther away from our own truth as a species. 
One morning we are going to wake up to find that we have passed the tipping point—if indeed we haven't already done so. The oceans will be too acidic to support shellfish or coral reefs; it will have been fished out. There are already areas in which oyster farms have had to be moved because the water is too acid. In consequence of all these changes, the marine mammals will have died. And on a larger scale, the change in the oceans, which have such a profound impact on our weather, will bring catastrophic consequences for us humans, not only in the magnitude of storms, or the loss of species in their own right, not only as a source of endless beauty and wonder, but also as a resource for food and pharmaceuticals.
Back in the late sixties, when I was living in New York City, starved for wilderness, when the knowledge of environmental degradation was just beginning to have impact, I wrote a folk song called 'Extinction'. The chorus went like this:

The eagle and the tiger and the great blue whale
gave us the knowledge to prevail:
they showed us our selves by form and act—
not even God can bring them back.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Poverty in a Season of Excess

[Margaret Watson posted a link to this article in her blog It's by Linda Tirado]

There's no way to structure this coherently. They are random observations that might help explain the mental processes. But often, I think that we look at the academic problems of poverty and have no idea of the why. We know the what and the how, and we can see systemic problems, but it's rare to have a poor person actually explain it on their own behalf. So this is me doing that, sort of.
Rest is a luxury for the rich. I get up at 6AM, go to school (I have a full course load, but I only have to go to two in-person classes) then work, then I get the kids, then I pick up my husband, then I have half an hour to change and go to Job 2. I get home from that at around 12:30AM, then I have the rest of my classes and work to tend to. I'm in bed by 3. This isn't every day, I have two days off a week from each of my obligations. I use that time to clean the house and soothe Mr. Martini and see the kids for longer than an hour and catch up on schoolwork. Those nights I'm in bed by midnight, but if I go to bed too early I won't be able to stay up the other nights because I'll fuck my pattern up, and I drive an hour home from Job 2 so I can't afford to be sleepy. I never get a day off from work unless I am fairly sick. It doesn't leave you much room to think about what you are doing, only to attend to the next thing and the next. Planning isn't in the mix.
When I got pregnant the first time, I was living in a weekly motel. I had a minifridge with no freezer and a microwave. I was on WIC. I ate peanut butter from the jar and frozen burritos because they were 12/$2. Had I had a stove, I couldn't have made beef burritos that cheaply. And I needed the meat, I was pregnant. I might not have had any prenatal care, but I am intelligent enough to eat protein and iron whilst knocked up.
I know how to cook. I had to take Home Ec to graduate high school. Most people on my level didn't. Broccoli is intimidating. You have to have a working stove, and pots, and spices, and you'll have to do the dishes no matter how tired you are or they'll attract bugs. It is a huge new skill for a lot of people. That's not great, but it's true. And if you fuck it up, you could make your family sick. We have learned not to try too hard to be middle-class. It never works out well and always makes you feel worse for having tried and failed yet again. Better not to try. It makes more sense to get food that you know will be palatable and cheap and that keeps well. Junk food is a pleasure that we are allowed to have; why would we give that up? We have very few of them.
The closest Planned Parenthood to me is three hours. That's a lot of money in gas. Lots of women can't afford that, and even if you live near one you probably don't want to be seen coming in and out in a lot of areas. We're aware that we are not "having kids," we're "breeding." We have kids for much the same reasons that I imagine rich people do. Urge to propagate and all. Nobody likes poor people procreating, but they judge abortion even harder.
Convenience food is just that. And we are not allowed many conveniences. Especially since the Patriot Act passed, it's hard to get a bank account. But without one, you spend a lot of time figuring out where to cash a check and get money orders to pay bills. Most motels now have a no-credit-card-no-room policy. I wandered around SF for five hours in the rain once with nearly a thousand dollars on me and could not rent a room even if I gave them a $500 cash deposit and surrendered my cell phone to the desk to hold as surety.
Nobody gives enough thought to depression. You have to understand that we know that we will never not feel tired. We will never feel hopeful. We will never get a vacation. Ever. We know that the very act of being poor guarantees that we will never not be poor. It doesn't give us much reason to improve ourselves. We don't apply for jobs because we know we can't afford to look nice enough to hold them. I would make a super legal secretary, but I've been turned down more than once because I "don't fit the image of the firm," which is a nice way of saying "gtfo, pov." I am good enough to cook the food, hidden away in the kitchen, but my boss won't make me a server because I don't "fit the corporate image." I am not beautiful. I have missing teeth and skin that looks like it will when you live on B12 and coffee and nicotine and no sleep. Beauty is a thing you get when you can afford it, and that's how you get the job that you need in order to be beautiful. There isn't much point trying.
Cooking attracts roaches. Nobody realizes that. I've spent a lot of hours impaling roach bodies and leaving them out on toothpick pikes to discourage others from entering. It doesn't work, but is amusing.
"Free" only exists for rich people. It's great that there's a bowl of condoms at my school, but most poor people will never set foot on a college campus. We don't belong there. There's a clinic? Great! There's still a copay. We're not going. Besides, all they'll tell you at the clinic is that you need to see a specialist, which seriously? Might as well be located on Mars for how accessible it is. "Low-cost" and "sliding scale" sounds like "money you have to spend" to me, and they can't actually help you anyway.
I smoke. It's expensive. It's also the best option. You see, I am always, always exhausted. It's a stimulant. When I am too tired to walk one more step, I can smoke and go for another hour. When I am enraged and beaten down and incapable of accomplishing one more thing, I can smoke and I feel a little better, just for a minute. It is the only relaxation I am allowed. It is not a good decision, but it is the only one that I have access to. It is the only thing I have found that keeps me from collapsing or exploding.
I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter, in the long term. I will never not be poor, so what does it matter if I don't pay a thing and a half this week instead of just one thing? It's not like the sacrifice will result in improved circumstances; the thing holding me back isn't that I blow five bucks at Wendy's. It's that now that I have proven that I am a Poor Person that is all that I am or ever will be. It is not worth it to me to live a bleak life devoid of small pleasures so that one day I can make a single large purchase. I will never have large pleasures to hold on to. There's a certain pull to live what bits of life you can while there's money in your pocket, because no matter how responsible you are you will be broke in three days anyway. When you never have enough money it ceases to have meaning. I imagine having a lot of it is the same thing.
Poverty is bleak and cuts off your long-term brain. It's why you see people with four different babydaddies instead of one. You grab a bit of connection wherever you can to survive. You have no idea how strong the pull to feel worthwhile is. It's more basic than food. You go to these people who make you feel lovely for an hour that one time, and that's all you get. You're probably not compatible with them for anything long-term, but right this minute they can make you feel powerful and valuable. It does not matter what will happen in a month. Whatever happens in a month is probably going to be just about as indifferent as whatever happened today or last week. None of it matters. We don't plan long-term because if we do we'll just get our hearts broken. It's best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it.
I am not asking for sympathy. I am just trying to explain, on a human level, how it is that people make what look from the outside like awful decisions. This is what our lives are like, and here are our defense mechanisms, and here is why we think differently. It's certainly self-defeating, but it's safer. That's all. I hope it helps make sense of it.
Additions have been made to the update below to reflect the responses received.
UPDATEThe response to this piece is overwhelming. I have had a lot of people ask to use my work. Please do. Share it with the world if you found value in it. Please link back if you can. If you are teaching, I am happy to discuss this with or clarify for you, and you can freely use this piece in your classes. Please do let me know where you teach. You can reach me on Twitter, @killermartinis. I set up an email at killermartinisbook@ gmail as well.

This piece has gone fully viral. People have been asking me to write, and how they can help. After enough people tried to send me paypal money, I set up a gofundme. Find ithere. It promptly went insane. I have raised my typical yearly income as of this update. I have no idea what to say except thank you. I am going to speak with some money people who will make sure that I can't fuck this up, and I will use it to do good things with.
I've also set up a blog, which I hope you will find here.
Understand that I wrote this as an example of the thought process that we struggle with. Most of us are clinically depressed, and we do not get therapy and medication and support. We get told to get over it. And we find ways to cope. I am not saying that people live without hope entirely; that is not human nature. But these are the thoughts that are never too far away, that creep up on us every chance they get, that prey on our better judgement when we are tired and stressed and weakened. We maintain a constant vigil against these thoughts, because we are afraid that if we speak them aloud or even articulate them in our heads they will become unmanageably real.
Thank you for reading. I am glad people find value in it. Because I am getting tired of people not reading this and then commenting anyway, I am making a few things clear: not all of this piece is about me. That is why I said that they were observations. And this piece is not all of me: that is why I said that they were random observations rather than complete ones. If you really have to urge me to abort or keep my knees closed or wonder whether I can fax you my citizenship documents or if I really in fact have been poor because I know multisyllabic words, I would like to ask that you read the comments and see whether anyone has made your point in the particular fashion you intend to. It is not that I mind trolls so much, it's that they're getting repetitive and if you have to say nothing I hope you can at least do it in an entertaining fashion.
If, however, you simply are curious about something and actually want to have a conversation, I do not mind repeating myself because those conversations are valuable and not actually repetitive. They tend to be very specific to the asker, and I am happy to shed any light I can. I do not mind honest questions. They are why I wrote this piece.
Thank you all, so much. I don't know what life will look like next week, and for once that's a good thing. And I have you to thank.

This post first appeared on

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Nights Are Drawing In . . .

There's a phrase that Brits use in October when the days are getting noticeably shorter: "The nights are drawing in."

The other day the sun broke through the heavy fog that is typical of this time of year. It seemed to slip along the ribbon of the horizon, as if the dark had opened for only a few hours before drawing its purse-string and concealing the light once more.

The leaves have mostly fallen; the air is dank and smells of rotting vegetation, wood fires. I miss the smell of spruce, so I bought some Christmas potpourri that wasn't too sweet and has a cinnamon edge to it. I miss Alaskan spruce ale that's sold this time of year: the first year they made it, it was really spruce-y; then they moderated it a bit...

The Christmas rush has begun in earnest: shops are filled to bursting and next weekend is the festival of lights in Oxford. The little shopping I have to do is done except for food and I can ignore it all and hunker down for the duration. 

I haven't heard an Advent hymn yet, but the newspapers have started publishing their 'how to survive Christmas' articles. I'm glad that there are people who enjoy Yule, whether or not they follow the religious rituals, which mostly they don't, not even a lot of the churches, which are lost in sentimentality and a 'relevance' that is utterly irrelevant.

Those rituals are still alive, part of the wonder that still dwells in the hidden place of the heart, inside the drawn purse-string of the dark of the year.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Phillippines Catastrophe

The disaster in the Philippines is at the top of the news, and the devastation is incomprehensible. Please support the relief effort as you can, and most of all with your prayer and tears.

Our friend Al Mozol, whose thoughtful comments have added so much to this blog, has written that 10 million people are affected, including 4 million children, and a projected $14 billion economic fallout. He says:

"I experienced a supertyphoon when I was 10. But this supertyphoon has no comparison for the magnitude of destruction of lives and properties. We are not seeing the whole picture yet of the areas and people affected because the coverage of the typhoon was trans-regional. There are places that remain inaccessible by the media because of damaged roads, seaports and airports. Survivors, beyond assessment, are either dying of grief or hunger or thirst; the [last] desperate resort... is to leave the horror and stench of the place to anywhere their feet will bring them. Then there's looting for food. Relief services are in haste but the problem is how to deliver those. Then there's the chicken-egg problem as to what to fix first—communication or power.

The sites of the devastation are an hour and a half flight from Metro Manila. But with the recent earthquake and now the supertyphoon, things get more scary and precarious each day—what next? The climate is getting worse, obviously.

The Philippine lead negotiator to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change's 19th Conference of Parties (COP19) who hails from one of the provinces hit by the typhoon and whose brother had not eaten for 3 days, is on voluntary fasting until something positive will come out of this conference in Warsaw.

I led my three classes today in prayer and I was always on the brink of weeping. Lots of silence before faces of suffering and the duet of Celine Dion and Bocelli's The Prayer helps a lot. There's no other way but to weep even as we move our feet to extend any form of kindness and generosity."

Monday, November 11, 2013

Cautionary Words from Pseudo-Dionysius

1092B ...Each rank around God conforms more to him than the one farther away. Those closest to the true Light are more capable of receiving light and of passing it on. Do not imagine that the proximate here is physical. Rather what I mean by nearness is the greatest possible capacity to receive God. If then the rank of priests is that most able to pass on illumination, he who does not bestow illumination is thereby excluded from the priestly order and from the power reserved to the priesthood. For he is unilluminated. A man thus deprived is, in my view,  insolent if he muscles in on priestly functions, when, without fear or shame, he unworthily pursues the divine things. He thinks 1092C God knows nothing of what he knows is going on within him. He imagines he can deceive the One whom he falsely calls "Father." He dares to be like Christ and to utter over the divine symbols not anything that I would call prayers but, rather, unholy blasphemies. This is no priest. He is an enemy, deceitful, self-deluded, a wolf in sheep's clothing ready to attack the people of God.

[From the translation by Luibheid and Rorem published by Paulist Press, pp. 274-5.]


1105C ...But let us not suppose that the outward face of these contrived symbols exists for its own sake. Rather, it is the protective garb of the understanding of what is ineffable and invisible to the common multitude. This is so that in order that the most sacred things are not easily handled by the profane but are revealed instead to the real lovers of holiness. Only these latter know how to pack away the workings of childish imagination regarding the sacred symbols. They alone have the simplicity of mind and t he receptive, contemplative power to cross over to the simple, marvelous, transcendent truth of the symbols.

1105D But there is a further point to understand. Theological tradition has a dual aspect, the ineffable and mysterious on the one  hand, the open and more evident on the other. The one resorts to symbolism and involves initiation. The other is philosophic and employs the method of demonstration. (Further, the inexpressible is bound up with what can be articulated. The one uses persuasion and imposes the truthfulness of what is asserted. The other acts and, by means of a mystery which cannot be taught, it puts souls firmly in the presence of God.

[p. 283]

Monday, November 04, 2013

Idle Musing

God cannot give us more than we can ask or imagine if we keep asking and imagining.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Read It and Weep

How economic growth has become anti-life | Vandana Shiva | Comment is free |

Limitless growth is the fantasy of economists, businesses and politicians. It is seen as a measure of progress. As a result, gross domestic product (GDP), which is supposed to measure the wealth of nations, has emerged as both the most powerful number and dominant concept in our times. However, economic growth hides the poverty it creates through the destruction of nature, which in turn leads to communities lacking the capacity to provide for themselves.

The concept of growth was put forward as a measure to mobilise resources during the second world war. GDP is based on creating an artificial and fictitious boundary, assuming that if you produce what you consume, you do not produce. In effect , “growth” measures the conversion of nature into cash, and commons into commodities. 

Thus nature’s amazing cycles of renewal of water and nutrients are defined into nonproduction. The peasants of the world,who provide 72% of the food, do not produce; women who farm or do most of the housework do not fit this paradigm of growth either. A living forest does not contribute to growth, but when trees are cut down and sold as timber, we have growth. Healthy societies and communities do not contribute to growth, but disease creates growth through, for example, the sale of patented medicine.

Water available as a commons shared freely and protected by all provides for all. However, it does not create growth. But when Coca-Cola sets up a plant, mines the water and fills plastic bottles with it, the economy grows. But this growth is based on creating poverty – both for nature and local communities. Water extracted beyond nature’s capacity to renew and recharge creates a water famine. Women are forced to walk longer distances looking for drinking water. In the village of Plachimada in Kerala, when the walk for water became 10 kms, local tribal woman Mayilamma said enough is enough. We cannot walk further; the Coca-Cola plant must shut down. The movement that the women started eventually led to the closure of the plant.

In the same vein, evolution has gifted us the seed. Farmers have selected, bred, and diversified it – it is the basis of food production. A seed that renews itself and multiplies produces seeds for the next season, as well as food. However, farmer-bred and farmer-saved seeds are not seen as contributing to growth. It creates and renews life, but it doesn't lead to profits. Growth begins when seeds are modified, patented and genetically locked, leading to farmers being forced to buy more every season.
Nature is impoverished, biodiversity is eroded and a free, open resource is transformed into a patented commodity. Buying seeds every year is a recipe for debt for India’s poor peasants. And ever since seed monopolies have been established, farmers debt has increased. More than 270,000 farmers caught in a debt trap in India have committed suicide since 1995.

Poverty is also further spread when public systems are privatised. The privatisation of water, electricity, health, and education does generate growth through profits . But it also generates poverty by forcing people to spend large amounts of money on what was available at affordable costs as a common good. When every aspect of life is commercialised and commoditised, living becomes more costly, and people become poorer.

Both ecology and economics have emerged from the same roots – "oikos", the Greek word for household. As long as economics was focused on the household, it recognised and respected its basis in natural resources and the limits of ecological renewal. It was focused on providing for basic human needs within these limits. Economics as based on the household was also women-centered. Today, economics is separated from and opposed to both ecological processes and basic needs. While the destruction of nature has been justified on grounds of creating growth, poverty and dispossession has increased. While being non-sustainable, it is also economically unjust.
The dominant model of economic development has in fact become anti-life. When economies are measured only in terms of money flow, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. And the rich might be rich in monetary terms – but they too are poor in the wider context of what being human means.

Meanwhile, the demands of the current model of the economy are leading to resource wars oil wars, water wars, food wars. There are three levels of violence involved in non-sustainable development. The first is the violence against the earth, which is expressed as the ecological crisis. The second is the violence against people, which is expressed as poverty, destitution and displacement. The third is the violence of war and conflict, as the powerful reach for the resources that lie in other communities and countries for their limitless appetites.

Increase of moneyflow through GDP has become disassociated from real value, but those who accumulate financial resources can then stake claim on the real resources of people – their land and water, their forests and seeds. This thirst leads to them predating on the last drop of water and last inch of land on the planet. This is not an end to poverty. It is an end to human rights and justice.

Nobel-prize winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen have admitted that GDP does not capture the human condition and urged the creation of different tools to gauge the wellbeing of nations. This is why countries like Bhutan have adopted the gross national happiness in place of gross domestic product to calculate progress. We need to create measures beyond GDP, and economies beyond the global supermarket, to rejuvenate real wealth. We need to remember that the real currency of life is life itself.

• Vandana Shiva is a guest of the Festival Of Dangerous Ideas, Sydney Opera House, this weekend.