Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Like many of those reading this post, I am very opposed to the current lax regulation of guns, though I come to my gun opposition from a somewhat different route than most of the people I know. Because my father was afflicted with a number of problems, including the problem of considering himself a "country boy" despite living well within the limits of a major midwestern city, we had quite a few guns in our home. At the age of 12 I already owned a bb gun, a 22-caliber rifle and a 12-gauge shotgun. My father, meanwhile, owned a rifle, a shotgun and a pistol along with other weapons I'm forgetting now. The stock of my father's shotgun was made of a special kind of wood -- tiger tail maple -- that he sought out and fetishized. My father would clean his guns while watching television... somehow he found this relaxing. He would take me skeet shooting -- a ridiculous waste of time -- and my performance at shooting skeet was so miserable that my father was (yet again) profoundly embarrassed by me.
Despite my ineptitude at the absurd practice of skeet shooting, I liked guns well enough as a youngster. After my early triumphs blowing up ant nests with fire crackers and "mating" angry bees with docile slugs, I graduated to shooting pigeons and squirrels in our densely populated neighborhood. The people living behind us once had their dinner interrupted by several of my shots going through their windows, and the spinster living in the mock Tudor house beside ours once ran hysterically out of her screened porch to stop me from finishing off a pigeon that had fallen into her yard. I was simply amazed at how many bb shots a pigeon could take to its head without dying. Not many years before, that same spinster had told me out of the blue that I had beautiful eyes... a compliment that left my young mind aghast with confusion. What did she think of my eyes as I used them to aim pellet after pellet into the head of that dazed, harmless pigeon she was defending?
Fast forward to the present and my intense loathing for guns. I would never own a gun, and cannot imagine what goes through the minds of gun advocates on an emotional level to defend gun ownership so fanatically. My father died many years ago at a comparatively young age, leaving me quite free to develop my loathing of guns and my appetite for so many things he would have disdained or hated. Where in the world are my father's beloved guns, and where are my own weapons, today? As for my mother, she does not even recall the plethora of guns we had in our home in the good old days and dared to suggest in a recent conversation that more guns rather than fewer of them might solve our problems in this country. When my mother said that I knew that she really has given her mind and identity over completely to the conservative media that provides her with the "news" and entertainment she prefers to imbibe. Like the spinster's intimate compliment so long ago, my mother's state of mind -- her political values and viewpoints -- leave me aghast with confusion.
I believe our country's problem with guns is largely a by product of a toxic culture that promotes passivity, worships overconsumption, adores violence and encourages paranoia together with a host of other pathologies. The bizarrely tenacious historical legacy of the United States as a "frontier nation" and, worse, as a "Christian nation" provides one emotional underpinning to our country's love of weapons and violence. The other emotional foundation of our gun culture is an amalgam of primitive ideas, such as the idea that a man with a gun is somehow more of a man... or the idea that "individual rights and individual responsibility" trump our collective responsibility to one another. I believe our country is sick and guns, more than anything else, are a symptom of that sickness.
And yet, as unshakable as the gun culture seems to be, there is something even more powerful and that is our money culture. Money culture is the true root of all our problems, but once in a while the golden worm turns ever so slightly and today (18 December 2012) that worm actually turned: private equity giant Cerberus Capital will sell its huge gun subsidiary, "Freedom Group," which takes in over $1 billion a year marketing exactly the type of weapon used to kill 26 people in Sandy Hook, CT. Freedom Group...don't you just love how people who make and do vile things give those things a superficially pretty name?
Cerberus, which eagerly assembled a variety of gun and ammunition makers to create "Freedom Group," is only taking this action because a large public pension fund, the California State Teachers Retirement System, said it would be reviewing its investment in Cerberus given the prominence of lethal weaponry in Cerberus's investment portfolio. So here's the point... if you participate as the beneficiary of a large pension fund then you can insist that your pension fund divest its stake in all weapons manufacturers. Divesting large sums of money out of weapons manufacturers is far and away the quickest route to taming gun violence in the USA because Americans love money even more than they love guns.
If owning gun companies were to become radioactive to investment companies, then the value of gun companies would plummet, depriving them of capital and of legitimacy. That, in turn, would hurt the gun merchants quite a lot. Of course, this would be the financial equivalent of pumping pellets into the head of a wounded pigeon in that it will take quite a few of those financial "pellets" to finish off the gun industry, but if we all pressure our pension funds to divest it should have quite a beneficial impact.
Please bear in mind that the ultra-extremist National Rifle Association derives much of its money from weapons manufacturers. So divesting weapons manufacturers from pension funds could help to dry up the torrent of blood money being recycled from gun manufacturers into one of the worst organizations ever devised by humankind.
I have just one last point to make on guns -- a statistical exercise. As reported in the Guardian (see the link below), there are 270 million civilian firearms in the U.S., equating to 89 guns for every 100 people in our country. This makes the U.S. the scariest place, by far, on the planet, but this awful statistic greatly understates our gun problem. Here is how I would calculate the actual number of guns per adult in the United States:
2010 population: 308.8 million... minus
2010 population under 10 years old: 40.5 million
equals an "adult" population of 268.3 million
Of 268.3 million people, assume 50% own at least one gun (based on Gallup Poll -- see link below)
...so 134 million people in the USA own guns -- this is the denominator of our ratio
The Guardian's tally of 270 million firearms doesn't capture them all, not by a long shot (no pun intended). If we conservatively assume 20% of guns are not reported because they are illegal, this raises the number of civilian firearms in the United States from 270 million to 338 million.
And now for the really exciting conclusion: If we divide 338 million guns by 134 million citizens 10 years old or older we get a ratio of 2.7 guns per adult in the United States, which is triple the rate reported by the Guardian. This number of 2.7 guns per adult is five times as high as the next worst country, Yemen. Beating Yemen that badly in terms of guns per capita is a pretty appalling result for the United States and really underscores the deeply pathological nature of our violence-ridden country.
The wonder of it isn't that tragedies like the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School take place. Rather, when we consider how completely unhinged and well armed our fellow citizens are, we can feel grateful that atrocities like the one at Sandy Hook happen as infrequently as they do.
The Guardian's gun map... very interesting although quite simplistic:
Here is a link to a Gallup poll on guns... also very interesting and quite sad:
Monday, September 17, 2012
Tuesday, June 26, 2012
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
The United States prides itself on being a capitalist country – the bastion of capitalism, actually. The U.S. also loudly declares that it is the land of liberty. And notwithstanding the horrendous recession it imposed on the world and that continues to wreak global havoc, the U.S. remains very wealthy compared to other industrialized countries. In 2007, for example, the U.S. GDP per person was nearly $44K, compared with around $38K for mineral-rich Australia and Canada and $36K for the U.K. and $33K for France. Only Norway, with its tiny population and huge oil reserves, appears to rank meaningfully higher ($53.5K):
In this wealthy, capitalistic country where people are supposedly free to do as they choose, shopping occupies a special place in the pantheon of national pastimes. Time not spent working, after all, must be passed somehow, and shopping as an activity complements the public’s voracious consumption of media. Television, movies, magazines and websites abound with images of products and the “lifestyles” they supposedly embody or facilitate. A seemingly endless stream of new and improved objects is constantly being touted with the goal of stimulating consumption and capturing market share. Ideally, a company’s product will become one that consumers cannot readily imagine living without. This despite the fact that thousands of years of human history offers abundant evidence that people can live without that newest new, new thing.
Those of us not completely on the band wagon of the headlong consumption that holds most of the U.S. population in its thrall wonder what drives all that consumption in the first place. Why do Americans so adore shopping and, in many cases, spend well beyond their incomes? If you google the phrase “why consumer culture” you will get 453 million links, so there is no end of theorizing about this social and commercial phenomenon. It is hardly a given that such theorizing serves any purpose more useful than shopping itself, but I’ll dip a toe in this topic with my eyes very much open to that paradox.
My personal (and highly unscientific) explanation of rampant consumer culture is that people simply need something to do with themselves in their non-working hours, and consumption is the path of least resistance. Shopping – both the activity itself and debates among families about where to shop, what merchandise should be bought and what merchandise should be returned to the store because it wasn’t satisfactory – burns up a lot of unstructured time and requires little to no reflection on so-called deeper subjects. It can be distinguished from creativity, which does require the expenditure of mental energy and, when done with passion, also entails delving into psychic areas that can be quite uncomfortable. Shopping is also readily combined with eating (at shopping mall food courts, for instance), an unhealthy symbiosis that is driving U.S. obesity statistics into the stratosphere (two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, with 34% in the obese category).
In addition to burning up lots of time in an undemanding fashion, shopping also closely aligns the shopper with mainstream American society. Put another way, shopping is an expression of conformism on the one hand and of insecurity on the other. The insecurity stems from worry about social position and respectability – the image-conscious consumer worries that worn-out trousers or an old, dented car make him look poor, clueless or otherwise socially undesirable. The subtext pitched by all marketing is that buying new products can inoculate the shopper from the pain of social ostracism. The more expensive the product, the more complete the shopper’s immunity from embarrassment and pain and the greater the prestige acquired by the shopper.
Insecurity about appearances and the social position they imply is nothing new – a poem by Wang Fan-chih (590-660) explores the theme of poverty compared to wealth in a humorous way:
When the rich pass proudly by
on big, smooth horses,
I feel foolish
riding my scrawny donkey.
I feel much better
when we overtake
a bundle of sticks
riding a bony man.
Consumer culture peaks during the so-called holiday season, and in that season of consumption there is no day more closely tied to shopping frenzy than “Black Friday.” This day, immediately following on the often highly dysfunctional Thanksgiving holiday, traditionally sets the pace for the peak shopping weeks of the year when retailers make most of their annual profits.
In the early morning hours of Black Friday 2008, a temporary worker named Jdimytai Damour was trampled to death by shoppers at the Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, New York. It’s worth noting that Mr. Damour was not a frail man – he stood 6 foot 5 inches tall and weighed 270 pounds, measurements that testify to the degree of frenzy among the roughly 2,000 people stampeding into Wal-Mart when it opened at 5am that morning. You can read an article about this event at the following link; I recommend browsing the reader comments that appear below this article:
In a very real sense, Mr. Damour was sacrificed at the altar of American insecurity – he died because people worried that they wouldn’t be able to obtain the objects they needed to evidence their social position or aspirations, to display their wealth and to assuage their guilt at not being able to give even more lavish presents to their loved ones. In the war to protect the self at the expense of others and to push away introspection and difficult feelings, Mr. Damour made the ultimate sacrifice. As such, he should be buried at Arlington National Cemetary. Unfortunately, public attention moved on quickly after the initial reports of his death, and no press coverage that I could find relates the location of Jdimytai Damour’s grave.
I did not see any reports of fatalities associated with Black Friday 2009, though there was a report of fighting at a Wal-Mart in California. The fighting forced the store to close so that civil order could be restored at the discount emporium. As with the article cited above about Black Friday 2008, the reader comments are more interesting than the press accounts to which they relate:
Aside from costing people their very lives, this mania for shopping is bankrupting the American population. Many people simply cannot control themselves and have run up large debts that, until recently, fueled fat profits at financial institutions. Now many of those debts have gone bad, in parallel with the home mortgage debacle, leading to huge losses on bank credit card portfolios (over 10% of credit card debt outstanding is now believed to be a total loss). It turns out that loan portfolios inflated by the banks’ wondrous financial “innovations” have had consequences every bit as disastrous as the shopping for “innovative new products” facilitated by those loans. And much of that shopping furnished homes that people could not afford and never should have been given the financing to buy. Recklessly easy credit fueled the home mortgage debacle and a tidal wave destructive shopping, blowing up our economy. The economic dislocation has exposed the interdependency of media, credit and consumption. Large social dislocations and political problems have ensued.
Despite the problems caused by the credit bubble's collapse, progress in the political realm to induce change has been almost nonexistent. This is because real change – not the faux change that makes for glib political sloganeering the world over – would be incredibly difficult for our society. The Obama administration is working diligently to revive the economy by encouraging banks to extend ever more loans to consumers and businesses, and by engaging in deficit spending with complete abandon. The irony that this economic “cure” is worse than the “disease” of recession itself seems lost on Timothy Geithner, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. These two are being hailed in the financial press for their “bold, unorthodox” response to the financial crisis, despite the fact that it was their lack of regulatory vigilance that permitted the crisis in the first place. A court-mandated restraining order should be passed forbidding this hapless duo from stepping within 100 yards of any government office building, financial institution or school.
Congress also bears plenty of blame for the financial crisis. Predictably, though, there have been displays of outrage from these elected officials decrying the excesses over which they blithely presided. Legislation is being debated in the House and Senate to reform the financial system, but the likelihood that real reform will be passed before the 2010 midterm elections is increasingly slim. You can be sure that financial institutions will donate unusually large sums to the congressional campaign funds in this midterm election cycle, hoping to buy the compliance of legislators and stave off any real reform. Even before the election bonanza, the banks have been remarkably effective at squelching government efforts to correct their excesses and protect our economy from their predations. As Bloomberg News wrote in a recent article, “Two years after the start of the deepest recession since the 1930s, no U.S. or European authority has put in force a single measure that would transform the financial system, based on data compiled by Bloomberg. No rule- or law-making body is actively considering the automatic dismantling of banks that Volcker told Congress are sheltered by access to an implicit safety net.” You can read more on the lack of financial reform progress in this Bloomberg article:
Meanwhile, one year after the apex of the financial panic that followed the bursting of the credit bubble, we are said to be in a recovery. Of course, the term “recovery” is not being used as it would in the context of addiction treatment, in which addicts stop the addictive behavior and remain on permanent guard against its return. Instead, “recovery” is being promoted as a frank return to the practices that drove our economy over a cliff to begin with: more liberal credit combined with low private savings and unsustainably high consumption. Rather than crafting policies that will put America on a more secure economic footing by curbing the longstanding excesses in credit and consumption, the Federal Reserve and the Obama Administration (very much like the Bush Administration) are doing everything possible to restore the old status quo. Their desperate attempts have led to a frightening increase in the federal debt load ($7.5 trillion at 3Q09, up 30% year over year), debasing our currency and speeding America’s commercial and strategic decline.
So, is there a solution to this nightmare? With government, the media, the financial industry and the retailers fiercely resisting any meaningful change to the system, the only potential source of change would be consumers themselves. Fearful of job losses and staring into the abyss of bank accounts woefully inadequate to meet long-range commitments like retirement funding, are consumers borrowing and spending less? Here, the data are more mixed than one would expect given the gravity of the crisis. In November 2009, retail sales rose 1.9% from the prior year – the first year-over-year rise since August 2008. This is surprising since the unemployment rate was 10%+ in November 2009, far above the 6.8% unemployment rate in November 2008. Household debt fell a bit (-1.8% yoy in 3Q09), but most of this decline may well stem from bankruptcies, foreclosures and defaults rather than actual debt repayments by consumers. Personal savings rose by $490 billion, but dollars saved were down $100 billion from 2Q09. See tables F.8 and F.100:
The picture of American consumer behavior that emerges from these numbers is one of mild retrenchment in the face of dire conditions. Despite a scarcity of jobs, sharp losses in home equity and depleted savings accounts, Americans continue to shop religiously. This is the face of addiction, writ large across the 308 million people living in this country.
Is this shopping addiction a “high class problem” compared to the plight of the very poor in American society? I’ve written in an earlier blog entry about the very poor and their marginalization in the U.S., as well as their relative inability to participate in our intensely commercial economy. I’ve characterized their lack of choice as painful because of cultural conditioning and the social ostracism noted above. And extreme material deprivation – the lack of access to a safe, private space in which to eat, bathe and rest – causes tremendous suffering among homeless people. However, I’ve also alluded in a prior post to one positive aspect of severe poverty: the very poor aren’t stuck on the treadmill of endless, empty consumption that holds the rest of the country in its thrall. No scrawny donkeys for them, let alone sleek horses...they carry a bundle of sticks on their bony frames, making the rest of us look “good” as we pass by with our heads full of schemes and plans to deck out our bodies, houses and cars with the latest and greatest, whether we can afford it or not.
I don’t know for sure, but I suspect most homeless people don’t opt out of consumer society because they want to, but rather because their material circumstances dictate that they must. It seems probable that, given the means to do so, many homeless people would behave as their wealthier counterparts by consuming briskly and saving little to nothing of what they earn. But without access to income or credit, and without a safe private space to store personal possessions, the homeless are forced to do what the rest of our society could, but can’t, do: go cold turkey on shopping and borrowing. In an addictive society, the neediest cannot get their “fix” and in this crucial respect they are healthier than the rest of us.
With the holidays in full swing, I feel tempted to wish for an end to poverty and the America's rampant consumerism. It does sound appealing... no more haggard faces beseeching indifferent passersby to throw a coin in their cups, or at least to acknowledge their existence. No more “doorbuster” stampedes or fisticuffs, no more giants like Jdimytai Damour slain by stampeding swarms of product-addled ants. No more “experts” telling us where the stock market will go tomorrow and what we must buy if we want to be happy, secure and socially proud, no more Ben Bernanke or Tim Geithner or Wal-Mart.
But the problem with my wish would be that it’s a wish... something to cling to, something that excludes aspects of reality I find inconvenient or offensive. Like the heedless consumption my wish would abolish, it is a denial of reality, an attempt to parse good from bad and to perfect a world that, despite its obvious flaws, contains everything we need. The world is perfect, just as it is; we merely need to see clearly, to pay attention, and to drop our ideas and preconceptions about how things ought to be in order to recognize that perfection. Wanting to change reality to suit our individual tastes is just an addiction – in fact, it is the mother of all other addictions. And the mother of all battles is to drop the need to discriminate between superficially separate phenomena – good and bad, expensive and cheap, homebound and homeless – these and myriad other dualisms are the addictions to which we are all subject. Go cold turkey on this addiction, and everything will fall into place. As Seng T’san, the third Zen patriarch wrote in his “Verses on the Faith Mind”:
The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent
everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
If you wish to see the truth
then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
is the disease of the mind.
When the deep meaning of things is not understood,
the mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.
So, was this blog posting a waste of my time and yours? Yes! No! Maybe!
Sunday, November 15, 2009
I don’t know his name, where he’s from or what makes him tick. He’s a man who sometimes intersects with me amidst this web of routine and necessity that ties us all together without our necessarily knowing much about one another, or about ourselves.
What is our appetite to know each other, which is a way to know ourselves?
He’s a man I see from time to time, knowing very little about him. I know I like him, though. We always have a brief, pleasant interaction while he bags my soup and the roll that comes with it at a shoebox-sized cafe on the far west side of Greenwich Village. The place has good food but it’s quite out of my way; I rarely get there, especially during these last weeks when I was sidelined by surgery. Recuperating at home meant a few sacrifices, including a long period during which I contented myself with inferior versions of my favorite treats.
But those treats beckoned the other night when it was cold and windy... one of those quintessential late fall nights when good soup seems particularly welcome. So I made a special effort to walk way west and try my luck at the shoebox after a long hiatus.
When I entered the shop shortly before closing time, he was busy behind the counter, as usual. He had the same pleasant, gentle, easy-going manner as he picked and packaged orders for customers ahead of me in line. Except there was a difference: He looked painfully thin compared with how I remembered him from a month earlier. The smooth texture of his pale brown skin was stretched tightly over his handsome face. Those high cheekbones were sharply visible, and his arms were like spindles. It seemed like special effort was required for him to do the simple things he was long accustomed to doing.
While he busied himself, a woman suddenly appeared from the shop’s nether regions – a worker there, or perhaps the owner. “You’re looking better,” she said to him sympathetically as we customers eavesdropped. “You think so?” he asked quietly as he continued putting orders together. “Yeah,” she said, adding gently “but you could gain a little more weight.” He said something in agreement with her assessment, but I unconsciously tuned out their conversation because I couldn’t handle the feelings this situation was conjuring up inside me.
Who was this man, really, and what had happened to him? He had obviously been through a severe illness, and I could relate to that, having only recently emerged from my own recuperative cocoon with a deficit of five pounds shed from my frame. I had felt great vulnerability for the past several weeks and was just starting to feel “like myself” again. How interesting that feeling less vulnerable was the more normal feeling to which the compass in my head was pointing. How ironic that I had conceived of my visit to this cafe as a happy step on my way back to normalcy, only to have the visit feel anything but normal or upbeat.
We all know that “normal” is a dangerous word, a grotesque pretense, but most of us operate most of the time as if there were such a thing. This is certainly true for me – I adore routines, predictability. My little habits, my assumptions and prejudices, foster the illusion that I can expect order and stability from my days and nights. Though I might complain about it at times, yearning to be more daring, predictability is a lot more comfortable for me than confronting the uncertainty that rules all our lives. But that uncertainty can’t be denied for very long....reading in the newspapers about people who have lost their jobs and their homes, I feel uneasy because it reminds me of what I’ve lost or could lose. Walking into a little cafe where all I had expected to do was buy some soup I was suddenly uneasy seeing someone skeletal, even more skeletal than I was.
So I was caught up in the mystery of my own reflection in the face and body of another person. I was confronting my shock at the connection and my inability to do anything with or about it.
There are many layers to this elephantine uncertainty that is always there: What will become of me? What will other people think of whatever happens to me, and how much of what “happens” will actually, in my mind, be other people’s perceptions of the bare facts of my life? Do I look good, and is that being noticed by the right people? Do I look like I have things under control? Am I being properly valued by others, do they recognize what I have to offer? If they don’t recognize my offering, whose fault is that and what do I do with that feeling? Etcetera...
This is a common way of being in the world: insecurity expressed through self-torment about the way others see us. This insecurity is big business: It propels up to 50% of consumer spending (http://www.bls.gov/opub/uscs/report991.pdf), which in turn accounts for 70% of U.S. economic activity. But surely it is possible to look at something (or someone) without having, or feeling the need to have, an opinion about it (them). Or in the context of this cafe encounter, surely it is possible to bear witness to something painful without implicating ourselves in it or trying to “fix” it. And if we see these possibilities, then we also see the potential to live securely without worrying about the shadowy judgments we imagine are continually made and re-made by others...about us.
On that chilly night, my intellectual grasp of these notions was completely useless to me. It was upsetting to see this pleasant man looking so frail. He was so publicly frail... did I look so obviously “not myself” to the people around me? Had my illness left its mark on my face and bearing, however temporarily, arousing pity in others? Would pity be a proper valuation of what I have to offer, or was I “better” than that? Why would pity felt on my behalf be so terrible that I would shun it like a newly minted leper shuns a leper colony? Why was it so painful to feel – and witness pity felt – for this other man? This man, much younger but about my size and a million miles away behind a deli counter in that bright, well worn space.
And then it hit me... I was feeling my innate helplessness yet again. I was experiencing my reality, a reality that normally gets papered over by the clutter of routine sleepwalking. Witnessing the suffering of someone else without having a way to ease that suffering was just a kissing cousin of my three days on the streets of Manhattan or my two weeks recovering from surgery. It was the mirror image of what I had been experiencing – it was my image. In that little cafe, the helplessness of others and their utter dependence on me was fully on display right next to the crab meat sandwiches and the beet salad. Unfortunately, I didn’t seem to have any better tools to work with the suffering of others than I had had to cope with my own suffering. And I couldn’t just bear witness to what was going on – I felt the need to react. The result: more suffering!
As the man behind the counter talked with his co-worker, as the customers ahead of me in line shifted restlessly on their feet, I was feeling the pain of my inescapable connection to sickness and uncertainty. Not knowing what to do with that pain, I bided my time until it was my turn to order. When my turn came, I stepped up to the counter, said hello to the man as cheerfully as I could and told him what I wanted. We chatted pleasantly while he got my soup, behaving as if nothing unusual had happened to either of us. And then I took my paper bag and left the shop, walking slowly eastward.
Monday, November 2, 2009
What is it like to be helpless... to beg... to be homeless? If we look honestly at our lives, we recognize that the answer to this question is always right in front of us, no matter how much we’d prefer to think otherwise. I think that we are all helpless, all the time. We are all begging, all the time. We are all homeless, all the time. Put another way, there are very few things that truly matter in life... and we don’t control any of those things. Instead, we live at the mercy of forces larger than ourselves, completely exposed even as we pretend to have it all neatly contained, under control.
The inescapable reality of my own helplessness is rolling around in my head in the wake of two very different episodes of exposure, of deprivation. The first episode was my three days and nights living on the streets of New York, closely followed by two weeks during which I was confined to an apartment while recovering from surgery. These very different experiences, far from existing separately in parallel universes, overlapped and echoed one another in unexpected ways.
Life on the streets without money or a dwelling to go to means utter dependency. You depend on the missions and soup kitchens for meals... on the rare bits of change or the rarer glances given by strangers for little comforts...on the cops to have better things to do than hassle you... on the weather to be warm and dry and the garbage trucks to be quick about their work so you can sleep a little. Life on the streets also means freedom because most of the time you have no illusion that there’s anything to be gained or lost. You just exist.
Being bedridden without the ability to go out means utter dependency. You depend on others to ask how you’re doing and to inquire if you need anything... to buy your food and, sometimes, to cook it for you. You depend on a body that seems out of control, wracked with pain and weakness, to somehow claw its way back to the surface and liberate you from isolation and incapacity. You depend on your mind to grow along the surface of your pain like a vine splashing color on a building in the autumn sun. You just exist.
Just existing has never been my specialty. I find direct experience scary and hard to process, preferring instead to dress up my experience in big, shiny words. I use words to create concepts and abstractions that dull the pain of reality and that also tend to impress other people, keeping them at a safe and manageable distance. It naturally follows, then, that being dependent on other people has never been my specialty either. I’m very attached to the idea that I can do everything for myself, never relying on anyone for anything if I can help it. Relying on others is difficult for me because of the uncertainty that goes along with that reliance. This uncertainty comes out of my expectations of others, and the painful probability that my expectations will be unfulfilled. By dropping my expectations I don’t have to rely on others... I can simply be dependent upon them. This is a critical distinction: I am dependent upon others, but I do not rely upon them. In this completely dependent and perpetually uncertain state, any outcome is possible and any outcome is the right outcome.
When I just existed, either on the streets or after surgery, I depended completely on others. Could depending completely on others while they depend completely on me be one way – the way – to define life itself?
There was something intoxicating about standing on a sidewalk, shaking a cup in one hand and playing a harmonica with the other, asking passersby for spare change. Begging openly, instead of covertly like I usually do, felt exhilarating. Then, too, there was the perverse pleasure of inviting perfect strangers to confront their imperfect feelings of guilt, embarrassment, disdain and, occasionally, pity. These dark sentiments, so unwelcome and yet so necessary, help to explain why the homeless are such outcasts in our society: They force all of us to feel something, in public. When I begged, I wasn’t embarrassed in the least: I felt unbound, exultant, even a little superior, making snide comments as people tried to slink by without a glance of acknowledgement.
Dependency after surgery was much harder for me than dependency on the streets. It was harder to admit to my friends and acquaintances that I needed help than it was to shake a begging bowl anonymously on Houston Street. The truth of my powerlessness hit closer to home after surgery because it wasn’t so easily contained or managed as my brush with homelessness had been. Retreating to bed, barely able to move, I wasn’t playing a role or chasing the essence of someone else’s daily experience. I was wrestling with the very real limits of my body and the constant pain of my wounds.
It was easier for me to beg when the choice to beg was mine alone and, perversely, when the chances of success were slim to none. I chose to be homeless, for a predetermined time frame and under controlled conditions. But I didn’t choose to be a sick person, and asking for the help I really needed after surgery – and had reason to expect might be forthcoming – was of an entirely different order. Begging on the streets felt empowering; begging in private felt weak and pathetic, even. The difference was that the veneer of choice offered me a comforting illusion of control, but when I didn’t have a choice even that illusion was gone. And that was frightening.
Convalescing from surgery, I often wondered what would have become of me if I didn’t have an apartment to stay in after leaving the hospital. What happens to the homeless person who gets an operation that requires a long, painful recovery? In several notorious cases uncovered recently in Los Angeles, hospitals stuck homeless people in vans and dumped them on downtown streets near rescue missions without any concern for their welfare. I doubt that those tactics are confined to Los Angeles, and if I didn’t have a place to stay after my operation it might very well have happened to me. In this narrow sense I am not homeless – I do have a private space that I can access on demand. But when I start to think of that space as anything more than a door to close and a bed to lie upon, when I imbue it with an emotional resonance beyond its practical (and very temporary) function, I know I’m deluding myself.
What is a home? It is a delusion that helps people imagine that they have control over their lives. It is a place where people imagine they have a separate world, their most private world, where they can avoid the things and people they want to avoid. By definition, these imaginings are accompanied by the idea that people can separate themselves from one another, and especially from untouchables like the homeless. Homeless people do not have any such imaginary place to which they can go. They are exposed – all the time – to the real world and its most insistent phenomena. No experience is off limits in the broad, exhausting space they inhabit.
What is a home? Trees and animals don’t have homes... they just live somewhere, they just exist. The world is their home, though they usually inhabit a definable range or part of the world where conditions favor their survival and reproduction. Humans are the only creatures that can control their environment to such an extent that their range covers the globe, and beyond. Humans are also the only creatures that own things and maintain a notion of property. We are told that what makes us human is that we have self-awareness and can think and act out of that self-awareness. But with so much of the thinking and acting done by people directed toward the acquisition and protection of property, it often seems like property is what truly makes us human. And if property makes a human what he or she is, what does that say about someone who has little to no property, or little to no interest in obtaining it?
In the United States, we seem to live in a world of ever-proliferating choice and specificity. We ponder, make and “outgrow” our various choices, and this is how we supposedly express our identities and maintain control of our lives. Everything is a product, and products form the basis of what marketers and the media incessantly tell us we must have... a lifestyle. We cannot simply live, or live simply. Instead we must style ourselves as unique individuals endowed with attractive and differentiated characteristics that we express by purchasing and displaying products. In this consumption-centric culture, people also tend to view one another as products that are chosen or rejected based on their perceived utility.
By this warped standard the homeless and the very sick would seem to be nobodies, because buying products isn’t on their radar screen. In a society burdened by too many choices, the very poor and the very sick have few choices, which is the key to their inherent freedom and also why they frighten other people. Homelessness and sickness could never be called lifestyles or marketed as such. Instead, they give rise to deeply human states of need, longing, isolation, anger and sadness tinged with the warmth of human connections, sought and unsought. Pain is not, and never will be, a product; rather, it is the antidote to all products, the remedy for and the end of all illusory choices.
Let me spice these abstractions by now being honest enough to admit the obvious: that I’ve made, and will make, plenty of illusory choices. Let me confess that I am highly attached to my apartment and the things it contains, things I have carefully purchased, found or made and that I display with fastidious care. Let me say clearly that I am complicit in this hugely dysfunctional system that I also criticize. In this sense I am very impure, which is a perfect expression of my humanity, analogous to my pretending to be independent despite my obvious helplessness and need. My impurity perfects my criticism of myself, and this criticism may well be my only hope.
When I lived with my dependency both on and off the streets, when I fully experienced it, the physical sensation was one of exhaustion. Pain and need are exhausting, whether they arise from an endless night huddled on cardboard in a piss-perfumed alley or an endless night spent in a narcotic haze, unable even to writhe properly. On the streets I rarely slept, and never rested; recovering from surgery, sleeping was about all I could look forward to. In both cases I felt completely wrung out from the cumulative weight of my suffering. And that suffering included the keen awareness that there were many people suffering far more than I was at the time. My mind couldn’t simply hold my feelings – it needed context to process my experience safely through ideas, concepts and abstractions. This text is a perfect example of that same need, and yet another manifestation of my own suffering.
My recent experiences have reminded me that I don’t control anything important and that I really am quite helpless, whether I choose to acknowledge it or not. Superficially examined, such thoughts might seem horribly negative and self-defeating. But reality is neither positive nor negative, while the denial of reality that is practiced on such a massive scale by our society is far more self-defeating than a cold, hard look at the facts. Embracing my reality, I see that I am always vulnerable and recognize this vulnerability as a great asset. It is an asset because to be truly vulnerable is to extinguish all fear. By embracing our own vulnerability instead of denying it, by being who and what we really are, we actually become fear and, as Krishnamurti says, fear comes totally to an end. What could be more liberating than the end of all fear? What could be more wonderful than always being at home?