A Few Rocks from the Box: A Meditation

This guest post is authored by John Rember


In my sophomore year of college I enrolled in a course that had given generations of students a painless way to satisfy the liberal-arts science requirement. It was known as Rocks for Jocks, and the final exam was the easy identification of every rock in a box. If you wanted an A in science, you took geology.

But the first day of geology class, a new professor announced Rocks for Jocks was over. The faculty of Arts and Sciences was determined to bring rigor into the geology program. We were now in a science class, and he was going to teach us science, no matter what had been taught in the past.

The final exam had nothing to do with a box of rocks. It asked for a coherent explanation of the chemistry and resulting crystal structures of basaltic minerals under varying conditions of temperature and pressure. I had studied my ass off, and was still grateful for the B-minus I received.

Along the way I had been drilled on high-temperature physics and the dynamics of dissolved gasses, and how aluminosilicate, with its strong chemical bonds, makes country rock hang together. I can still tell you about the relationship between plagioclase and orthoclase, information I haven’t used in forty-odd years.

Other aspects of the course have become more important over the years. The professor was the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who delighted us with lectures on why Godzilla and King Kong would die of heat stroke before they wrecked a single city, and why Mothra wouldn’t be able to fly unless the atmosphere had the density of water. Later, when I read Gould’s books, his sentences echoed the clear thinking that had brought the realities of classical physics into his paleontology lectures.

In one of those books, Gould went beyond classical physics and applied chaos theory to paleontology, and developed a refinement of evolutionary theory known as punctuated equilibrium. Punctuated equilibrium, put much too simply, suggests that species stabilize for millions of years until something happens and most of them die. Each flowering of evolution is simply natural selection, operating in a world full of empty ecological niches. Ten million years after a mass extinction, the earth has a whole new zoo.

The agent of extinction is climate, if climate includes asteroid impacts, supervolcanic eruptions, the sudden transformation of methane clathrates into atmospheric methane, and the appearance of capitalist hominids.

Punctuated equilibrium has been accepted by most evolutionary scientists, but if Gould were alive today, he’d be subjecting it to his own scientific skepticism. He consistently used science to undermine pseudoscientific certainty, magical thinking about technology, and the appropriation of scientific metaphors by non-scientists. He was particularly hard on people who tried to use science to enforce racist policies or determine standards for intelligence. But he questioned his own work just as much as he questioned the work of the more reckless and less intelligent people who also called themselves scientists.

The scientific method is just a powerful way to process data, Gould told us. Anyone who makes a religion of science doesn’t understand it. Certainty isn’t the point. Asking the right questions is the point. Any hypothesis can be overturned by new data, and there’s always new data.

So in college I learned to believe in a method, rather than in the data it processed. My geology course made it hard for me to believe anyone’s didactic scientific pronouncements, especially when they posed as prophecy.

If all this sounds deeply conservative, it is. To bring science into any controversy is to introduce shades of gray forbearance where once all was foam-at-the-mouth black and white. But while the scientific method is slow, if you’d like to see through the cloud of bullshit generated by bought-and-paid-for scientific experts, it provides some useful optics.

So, forty years later. Stephen Jay Gould is dead of mesothelioma, possibly contracted from one of the large blocks of asbestos fibers that were used as teaching aids in college geology labs back in the day. I remember watching a geology lab assistant peel a long feathery fiber from one of those blocks and wave it at us while lecturing on crystal structure. “You can make clothes from these crystals,” he said.

As a civilization, we just didn’t know. Or if we did know, we lacked the ability to name the idiocy and blind malice that underlay consumer culture. When the dying miners in Libby, Montana, were presented with evidence of what working in asbestos mines had done to them, some of them refused to believe it, much like some Jews walking down the steps to Auschwitz’s showers refused to believe they were walking into gas chambers. The deliberate stupidity required to construct an Auschwitz or an asbestos industry—stupidity elevated to the status of evil—is beyond the capacity of human intelligence to believe in it.

In his later writings, Gould demolished the cover that so-called scientific experts provided for lethal technologies, but that has not kept whole industries from continuing to employ science PhDs who will testify that dangerous and useless products and procedures are safe and effective.

After college I started working as a medical writer and had almost finished a book on heart disease before the company I was working for went broke. For six months I had read medical textbooks and peer-reviewed cardiology studies and talked to cardiologists, and I knew a bunch about the human heart and its maladies.

But I also knew something about the impossibility of designing study parameters and interpreting results. Briefly put, you can never identify all the causes of a heart attack. You can never identify all the effects of a drug on a human heart or on the human life it maintains.

So you can have the famous Framingham Study, which tracked forty thousand people over fifty years, identifying as many risk factors for heart disease as possible, and when all the data is in you’ll find that you missed a major risk factor or came to the wrong conclusion about a drug or procedure. Every postulated result is subject to argument. The data that the Framingham Study has produced will be mined for years by teams of people using ever more sophisticated methods of analysis to promote their competing hypotheses.

If you want to see in how many different directions the same data can be stretched, take a look at Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. If that book doesn’t shake your faith in the ability of science to know anything for certain, nothing will.

“By the summer of 2010,” is the opening phrase of a chapter in a history that will be written in 2020. I’d give anything to read the rest of that sentence right now, but the nature of future histories involves a tedious waiting for verification. But here are some guesses:
“… world population was approaching 7 billion humans.”
“… atmospheric concentrations of CO2 had reached 394 ppm.”
“… pollinator activity was declining over broad areas in the central and southwestern U.S.”
“… it was clear that the U.S. Congress could not serve as an effecive regulator of international corporations.”
“… the rate of North Korean plutonium production was ten times what it had been two years before.”
“… Dr. Weltentod had been retired from bioweapons work for ten years. Alzheimer’s was making it hard for him to function, and he was becoming more and more paranoid and isolated. But the freezer in his basement was still humming away, and the samples he had smuggled out of the lab decades before were still intact.”

You can have fun doing this sort of thing, but you won’t be much wiser for it.

The lesson here is that the present can’t reveal the truth of our lives, but future historians can. I’d like to talk to one of them. Preferably a human one, which limits the time frame we can talk about.

There are plenty of exponential curves and feedback loops that humanity is sitting on. Common sense suggests a subset of them will prove broadly lethal. I’d like to know which ones they are. I won’t find out until it’s too late. It’s already too late.

As military historians have shown, the generals who study the last war to fight the next one end up losing. History is a lousy prophet, especially when solipsistic prognosticators like Toynbee and Spengler get in the act.

A better prophet is common sense, which as the saying goes, isn’t common. It’s the complex dark brother of empiricism. It’s a blend of intuition, instinct, received knowledge, and perception melted together in the crucible of individual will. It can desert you when you most need it. Still, it’s helpful to apply it to some current situations, because you can know more through common sense than through science. Here are some spur of the moment, common-sense truths:
—If you take a planet with a history of climate phase-changes and introduce huge amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into its atmosphere you’re going to get a climate phase-change.
—Genetic engineering, antibiotics, and viral targeting of cancer cells are generating unintended consequences.
—The Iraq and Afghanistan wars will never have happy cost-benefit ratios unless you discount the value of human life to zero.
—Huge disparities in economic and political power will produce civil war and tyranny.
—Human population will crash rather than plateau because complexity has a momentum all its own.
—Deepwater oil wells are now politically and economically unviable due to their effects on ocean and shoreline environments.
—The scientific method is too slow to have an impact on any of these things.

If Stephen Jay Gould was alive today, he’d be pissed. A lifetime of debunking, and what does he get for it?
—A parade of expert witnesses in front of Congressional committees, contradicting each other but somehow reinforcing Congress’s naïve faith in pseudoscience.
—In the public mind, a weird equation of science and technology, when in fact they have little in common and often act as antagonists.
—A medical establishment so eager to prolong life that it’s willing to redefine life to prolong something.
—A general unwillingness to use simple pocket calculators to extrapolate identifiable trends.
—Magical thinking in the face of real data.
—The exploitation of honest scientific uncertainty by unscrupulous corporations.
—The willingness of almost everyone to leave the Now and return to the Clinton era, when it was possible to project one’s self into to the future, in the form of optimistic ideas that grandchildren could understand or undamaged DNA those grandchildren would have.

I’ve meditated myself into a dark place. But it’s not the fault of the scientific method. Rather, it’s a result of reading the headlines and using common sense to interpret them. And maybe a recent re-reading of Jaques Ellul’s The Technological Society tipped me a little more than usual toward techno-nihilism. Ellul is pretty convincing about his intuition that technology exists as a force in and of itself, one indistinguishable from death.

Ellul is no scientist, he’s a humorless Jesuit anarchist with literal-minded translators, but he’s worth reading if only because he knew enough in 1960 not to divide technology into Bad (the Bomb) and the Good (the new wonder drug Thalidomide). He declared a pox on all the houses of technology, calling technology a threat to human liberty and consciousness. If he were alive today, he’d be grimly satisfied at the fulfillment of his vision and delighted at getting a front-row seat at civilization’s upcoming auto-da-fe.

There’s a thought experiment that suggests things could be a good deal worse. If safe and easy-to-construct fusion plants could be built in every community, and if a quickly-rechargeable battery the size and shape of an automobile gas tank could be made to power a car for four hundred miles between charges, we could have the 20th Century, with its limitless technological horizons and murderous social arrangements, all over again.

Jung said that it’s hard to see the lion that has eaten you. But if you’re open to your experience, you can probably at least tell that you’ve been eaten, and by a lion.

The trouble with metaphors like Jung’s is that they can apply to almost anything. These days, the lion can be the petroleum industry, big banks, dying oceans, climate change, radical fundamentalism, techno-survivalism, precious metal hoarding, or Facebook. No matter what the lion is, you’re going to end up as lion shit.

Chaos theory has provided lots of metaphors for things that have nothing to do with chaos theory. “A sensitive dependence on initial conditions” may work to communicate the mechanics of ecosystems and natural selection, but it doesn’t add much to discussions of architecture and juvenile law and the economics of the automobile industry, places where I’ve seen it used lately. Political pundits or social critics or economists should stay away from the language of chaos theory, unless we want to end up with the punctuated-equilibrium equivalent of social Darwinism.

Stephen Jay Gould had a joy in finding a new rock or fossil or previously unremarked feature of a petrified anatomy. Any of these things placed him on the edge of the unknown, where all certainty was in danger of being overthrown. He was comfortable and happy and clear-eyed in that place.

When he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, he saw himself again at the brink of the unknown. He lasted twenty years on the edge of death, noting in passing that you had no need to believe in statistics if you were an individual cancer patient. As individuals dealing with a malignant culture, we could learn from his example.


John Rember has been teaching writing for thirty-five years. He’s the author of two collections of short stories and a memoir. His next book, to be published in 2011, is MFA in a Box, a Why-to-Write Book. You can read more about him and his writing at johnrember.com.

Comments 42

  • Amen

    Double D

  • Gould’s introduction of social slant including religion to the sciences
    makes him a non-entity i.e not to be taken seriously. His contradiction of Arthur Jensen with regard to psychometric testing, a case in point. He should have concentrated on palaeontology and empirical sciences this would have held him in higher esteem with his peers.

  • Gould also emphatically disagreed with the major premises of the 1994 book, “The Bell Curve”.There is a dirty(but true)secret in the cognitive
    sciences that intelligence is genetic.Gould could not stomach the fact
    that the “cognitive elite” in the “Bell Curve” were in fact genetically
    superior to the masses.This empirical truth has been a constant source
    of anguish to the egalitarian liberals in the cognitive disciplines,because it runs counter to what they want to believe.

    Gould especially,let his feelings run wild on this subject.

  • Since human nature never changes,history must,in the essentials ,repeat itself.This is no more clear that in the histories of the deaths of civilizations.Gibbon intructs us that the Romans,who for centuries depended on slave labor for virtually everything,were incapable of coping,indeed existing, without slaves.When this labor source was no longer available, the Western Roman civilization could no longer exist.

    Today,Senator John McCain tells us that white people are literally,physically,incapable of picking lettuce on an industrial scale.Think back to Guy’s 1500 mile caesar salad.Not only is that logistically absurd,it could not possibly have existed in the first place
    without illegal Mexican labor.Notice the next time you are driving,and come upon road repairs,that you never see white people doing the extremely hard,hot jobs such as laying the new asphalt.Whites will only be holding flags or directing traffic.It is no stretch to conclude that we could not drive our cars without illegal immigrants.

    Now white people are capable of washing dishes and making beds—-but believe me they WILL NOT.

    So we cannot eat fruits and vegetables,drive our cars,eat in a restaurant,or stay in a hotel or motel without illegal immigrants.

    We are doomed to disappear like the Romans—and for the same reasons.

    Double D

  • I hate to be contrary, Frank, but here in the inland northwest there are plenty of white people washing dishes, making beds and laying asphalt. There is no large contingent of migrant workers to lean on in this area, so the local year-round residents (and “migrant” college students) make up the work force. Proof that people can do and do get along just fine without an artificial racial division of labor when it isn’t offered.

    Although I do agree with your final statement.

  • As suggested, there are too many interacting factors – and unknowns – in the world to allow for a forecast: we have only trends to go on, but our future depends on how we interpret and act on them.

  • John:

    Dr. Weltentod (aka “World Death”) has all the makings of a short story. Does such a beast exist?

    Also, I’d quibble somewhat with equating dying Libby miners to Jews refusing to believe they were walking into the gas chamber. I went to Dachau in the 70s when they first opened it up to the public. The experience was probably my first clear-cut recognition of the grand-scale brutality a few humans can inflict upon the many. When I asked my (non-Jewish) mother afterwards why they didn’t fight back, afterall, they outnumbered evil many times over, she said, “we had nothing to fight back with.” I suspect some of that refusal to believe had more to do with self-preservation than an incapacity to comprehend. Those selected for termination and capable of doing so took control of the one thing they could (their mind) not as a denial of death but as an acceptance of the end on their own terms.

    Interesting post otherwise.

  • Resa:

    I was in Dachau in 1955.I remember the “crematoria”,with about 6 ovens fo cremating the dead prisoners,and various other exhibits,but
    the main camp itself was not open to the public.

    Double D

  • Wendy:

    Regarding illegal immigrant labor,I believe your area is an isolated,local,exception.If you go to any large city,it would
    be difficult to find any white person laying asphalt.

    Senator John McCain was talking to a group of labor leaders in Wash.DC,
    and told them he would give any one of them $100 per hour to work one season in the lettuce fields of Yuma,AZ,where most of our lettuce comes from.They laughed,and he replied “you can’t do it my friends”.In an accompanying article quoting a Mexican lettuce picker,the picker made
    it abundantely clear that it would be actually,literally,impossible for
    any white person to last one season,picking lettuce.Furthermore he stated,it takes 3 or 4 years to be good enough
    to adequately do the job.

    I can tell you that if Mexican workers were to walk off the job,most of
    the restaurants,bars,hotels,and motels in Phoenix and Tucson would have to close.

    So,when I say that most Americans could not eat fruits and vegetables,drive their cars,eat in a restaurant or stay in a motel or
    hotel without immigrant labor,you can believe that is the truth.

    Double D

  • Far be it for me to enter the fray between Wendy and Frank Mezek, much less divert further attention away from John Rember’s excellent essay, but I commented about the absence of Caucasian workers in a guest commentary about three years ago: “It’s time to close the borders–to people coming and going, to imports and exports.”

  • Hey Wendy,

    Be sure and read ProfEmGuy’s article,linked above.I’m too naturally
    modest to say that great minds run in parallel,but you get the idea.

    Double D

  • Resa:

    Quibble noted. You have a good point and I apologize if I’ve offended you. I wonder, though, if your vision of the last mental defenses of “those selected for termination” wouldn’t also apply to the miners dying in Libby, or the other miners suffocating in the Massey coal mines, and so on. Is there a moment when you realize that you’ve been selected for termination, and does it matter if what’s selected you is an insane industry or an insane political party or an insane country? Is there a moment when the mind realizes what’s going on before the defensive fictions take over? Or are the defensive fictions there all along and only become consciously chosen when the mind is under extreme duress?
    It’s hard to match the death camps for unequivocal evil, and so maybe bringing them up as an analogue for the more equivocal asbestos industry was a mistake. Maybe the asbestos industry is just fine as an analogue for itself and for a lot of other industries, most of them equivocally hidden away in China.
    One of the many things that keep me awake at night is that everyone I read keeps bringing up the reduction of seven billion to one billion or less. I just wonder how it’s going to happen and if there are going to be selection criteria this time around, and if there are, what they’re going to be. I’m not sure this one will be left up to Darwin.
    If that sounds paranoid, we’re not so far away from our own genocide that we can pretend it can’t happen here. It did happen here. Maybe someone with Indian ancestry can give us some additional family history on this matter.

    Dr. Weltentod doesn’t have his short story yet, but he seems to have some staying power. I kind of like the old guy. He’s been at the center of power all his life, and now he’s getting thrown out and forgotten and he’s losing his mind. But he still has weaponized bugs in his freezer. I think he’s worth a story, now that you mention it. Edward Teller as a biologist. Not a bad concept for a 2012 movie.

  • Frank said:
    “I can tell you that if Mexican workers were to walk off the job,most of
    the restaurants,bars,hotels,and motels in Phoenix and Tucson would have to close.

    So,when I say that most Americans could not eat fruits and vegetables,drive their cars,eat in a restaurant or stay in a motel or
    hotel without immigrant labor,you can believe that is the truth.”

    Maybe most Americans could not. But that should be a moot point soon enough, shouldn’t it, if Guy’s predictions come to pass? Those lettuce fields in Yuma, AZ represent Big Agriculture, which is just a part of the mess our Empire has gotten itself into. Ditto the restaurants, bars, cars and asphalt roads. Let ’em close, the sooner the better. Then we’ll see which persons, whatever race they may be, are capable of working hard. I don’t even need to bring my own experience with hard physical labor into this discussion to make my point, because Guy himself clearly represents one who is capable of much more than McCain seems to give any caucasian credit for.

    John, I apologize for following a rabbit trail away from your worthy post. Your points about science and common sense are well made. And I just put “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” on my library list.

  • “There is a dirty(but true)secret in the cognitive
    sciences that intelligence is genetic.Gould could not stomach the fact
    that the “cognitive elite” in the “Bell Curve” were in fact genetically
    superior to the masses.”

    At the risk of another bunny trail, Frank, this does not make sense. There are many types of intelligence, and everybody has some kind, and a way to shine. Just because I am in the top few percent on certain cognitive skills does not make me “superior to the masses.” My emotional intelligence quotient has been abysmal for most of my life, for example.

  • vera:

    “Emotional intelligence” is an oxymoron.There is no such thing.The two terms are mutually exclusive.

    Double D

  • The end of civilization could occur from any number of events—natural or man made.If by chance the well head on what’s left of the Deepwater Horizon were to fail,would it then be impossible to stem the “leak” ?
    If the ocean surface were then covered with enough oil,so that it could
    not produce the oxygen we need to breath,would that wipe out our species?

    Just a thought.

    Double D

  • Frank said: “Emotional intelligence” is an oxymoron.There is no such thing.The two terms are mutually exclusive.

    How do you figure? Am I deceiving myself when I think I have acquired some late in life? :)

    There sure seems to be musical intelligence… and I have some, but little compared to some friends…

    Maybe yer just teasing me…

  • Clinical definitions and layman’s definitions of intelligent may well diverge. I suspect the notion of multiple intelligences is more of a layman’s impression than a clinical one. A musician of high merit is better described as artistic, an athlete of high merit is better described as fast, strong, skilled, etc., but a person with meritorious cognitive skills (mostly quantitative and linguistic) is described as intelligent. That doesn’t mean emotion, athleticism, artistry, etc. don’t have their roles to play, only that to bring them within the general field of intelligence is a red herring.

  • vera:

    Your emotions are feelings that have nothing to do with intellect or cognition.Your pet or an idiot IQ human have spontaneous emotions.when
    you were 3 years old you felt happy when your mother gave you a piece of candy.

    Now reread what Brutus said above,because he did a much better job of explaining what emotion is than I did.The point is that emotion is something that has no relationship whatsoever to
    thinking or intellect.Emotion is an unthinking,spontaneous,anti-intellectual,Pavlovian,barbaric outburst.

    Intellect and emotion are two distinct,unrelated things that have absolutely no connection to one another.

    Double D

  • John:

    No offense taken.

    Outside of (perhaps) a handful of locations, Darwinism hasn’t existed in a long while. There’s nothing “survival of the fittest” about mono-crop agriculture or mechanized feedlots, wolf kill quotas or turtle hatcheries, genetically-modified seed or the drugs that keep my mother’s degenerating brain alive. In an initial population implosion (whether by starvation, political genocide, or weaponized bugs) luck will have more to do with surviving than one’s state of mind, health or prowess. Darwinism may return once the dust has settled.

    Yes, my vision of mental defense would also apply to miners dying of lung cancer or miners suffocating in a collapsed tunnel. I would not equate the two situations, however.

    You ask whether there’s a moment when a mind realizes death is imminent and kicks into defensive fiction mode. My question would be, what’s the point of defensive fiction if no such realization occurs? You ask (I may be mis-interpreting here) whether we are perhaps “born” with such mental defense capabilities which lie dormant until consciously selected in times of extreme mind duress, similar to “flight or fight”
    super strength. Good question. “Flight or fight” is inherent. I’ve seen that phenonomen. It exists in all species. Death-induced mental defenses appear to be a human occurrance. I conject they are learned and arise once the “flight or fight” option has been removed. I’m (loosely) basing my perspective on multiple-personality disorder where a dominant personality retains the memories of all splintered personae. But then, what do I know.

    Bummer on the short story. I was rather looking forward to it.

  • I would have to say, that sometimes very intelligent
    people can be very ‘odd’. I know of a couple of lads,
    one of which is a member of mensa, who can barely
    get his shit together, indulges in drugs and displays
    poor parenting skills. But yes his IQ is no doubt
    high, give me the company of the social/’emotionally’
    intelligent anyday.

  • Hey matt!(notice that I did not omit the exclam which is part of your correct nomenclature).

    I opened a Pandora’s Box to a metaphysical,epistiomological abyss,from which there is no escape.My mixed metaphores are an indication of this.
    This line is impossible and hopeless.I surrender.

    Better we just on to something more fruitful that is within our grasp.

    Double D

  • Any breeder in the world can tell you that intellect is inherited. It has no bearing on race as all races have genetic lines that pass on intellect. In the Congo basin humans have been able to pick fruit off the trees year around and so the genes that conferred intellect made no difference in survival rates. The Massai and the Bushmen did not have it so easy and the genes that conferred intellect did result in increased survival rates. The harsher the environment, the greater the effect of genes that confer intellect. America is about to become a very harsh environment and you will soon see that Darwin was right.

  • Brutus and Frank, you speak with old fashioned understanding that no longer makes sense, if it ever did. People with emotional intelligence know how to handle anger, theirs and other people’s, sanely. They know how to express empathy, and how to listen. They understand how to negotiate and dialog with people of opposing opinions. And so forth. Lack of emotional intelligence can ruin a life as surely as plain idiocy.

  • vera:

    I surrender unconditionally.

    See my response above.

    Double D

  • Vera,

    If you substitute emotional sensitivity for emotional intelligence, then I’m with you. Beyond that, you lost me when you used dialog[ue] as a verb.

  • Oh well, Brutus. I grew up with people who thought playing with food was just impermissible. Some think the same with language. I am on the side of play. ;) Though, now that I think of it, “to dialog” has a certain clumsy ring to it…

    Emotional sensitivity is not the same thing. As as kid I was very emotionally sensitive. That’s why all those emotionally dumb people around drove me crazy. Alas, I grew up emotionally dumb too.

    Frank, your white flag has been seen, and all planned raids have been called off! :D

  • Wendy:
    I grabbed The Structures of Scientific Revolutions out of a dusty bookcase this morning, started reading it on the couch, and it promptly put me to sleep for a couple of hours. It’s lost some of the excitement it had back when I was forcing sullen biology majors to read it. John Horgan’s book, The End of Science, is a much more readable discussion of the uncertainties that plague philosophers of science these days, and he spends some time on Kuhn. So Horgan might be the guy to start with.

    Family therapists spend a lot of time on the defensive fictions that groups of people establish, often at the expense of their individual members. So a family will often control the thoughts family members can have, tribes the thoughts tribal members can have, and so on.

    At the approach of death, the fiction of belonging to a group breaks down, and the group’s beliefs lose their power. At least that’s the hypothesis.

    I’m interested in that moment between when consensus reality/collective psychosis/group fiction breaks down and the moment when you say an individual fiction is invented to enable the ego to survive a few moments longer. If that brief period exists, it might be the moment of maximum freedom for humans. You can find a lot of evidence for that moment in literature–more fiction–but not so much in science.

    It also seems logical to assume that if a civilization dies, so will the consensus reality it has generated. We might be able to see things as they are for awhile, at least until our own magical thinking takes over. Besides being the moment of maximum freedom, it might be our moment of maximum intelligence.

  • ‘american resourcefulness is a well that will never run dry’

    ironic timely quote – with regards to the success of the ‘topkill’
    in the gulf

  • John:

    Yes, there’s much evidence in literature of death-induced fiction. I’m not always sure writers get it right.

    I’m going to set aside the dying Libby miners for now. They’re party to that consensus reality/collective psychosis/group fiction community you describe. They’re dying with a support system around them.

    I’ll keep the miners suffocating in a collapsed tunnel, and the Jews forced down the steps into the gas chamber. Flight and fight are not options. It’s one-on-one with death, and the Grim Reaper’s going to win. Inventing an individual fiction at that point isn’t an attempt to evade death so one’s ego can survive a few minutes longer. It’s an acceptance of the end on one’s own terms. The result is the same. The manner of getting there is what’s different. It’s holding the reins versus being driven. Whether that can be termed a moment of maximum freedom is debatable as only one outcome is possible. I would agree, however, it’s a moment of ultimate surrender.

    As for dying civilizations and their moment of maximum intelligence. Catch me after my third margarita on that one.

  • Resa:

    Little things give insight to the human psyche.The fact that you like Margaritas demonstrates your superior intellect and culture.

    The fact that the Margarita is my favorite cocktail has nothing whatsoever to with this observation.

    I’ll be in Margarita heaven this very evening.

    Double D

  • Correction:

    I omitted the “do” as in “to do with this observation”,above.

    The ecstacy involved with the very thought of a Margarita,was the
    reason for this error.

    Double D

  • Hello Guy & Gang,

    What a fine article you’ve let slip through, Guy. Thank you for a delightful reading experience, Doctor (Rabbi) Rember! I’m struck (damned-near) speechless.

    S.J.G. lived with cancer for 20 years… Phooey with the statistics!! I don’t know what he did to hold it off for so long. I REALLY am damned-near speechless – thanks, apparently, to a bad dose of cancer of the tongue. Evidence, pure and simple that there are some gods out there, and they are now having their due with one wise-ass atheist.

    I’m riding my cancer down – taking my cue from Slim Pickens’ character in Dr. Strangelove – him riding a atomic bomb to the ground. The Medical-Industrial Complex has already got $2000 (CT-scan) charged against my estate. I figure that should be all they get out of me – a credit owing to their account. My way of saying “Phooey!” to the whole cuckoo game of medical “whack-a-mole”. My wife is good enough to back me – “Doing It Frank’s Way” – I’m spending a bit of the presumptive “estate” on a “going away party” next week-end (Sat. June 5th). We’ve sent out invitations for “Poor Old Dan Treecraft’s Wake & Sock Hop”. I’m hoping to see & hear from some intrepid local folks – who might attempt to say something sweet and reminiscent about me before I croak.

    Trouble is, I couldn’t figure out a way to exploit any possible life-extending remedies without figuring myself to be a cop-out to “Mother’s” plans. Mom tapped me on the noggin & said, “Time to balance your checkbook, Son”. Me: “WilCo, Mom.” I don’t be leaving any real legacy behind, except this sort of coloring-outside-the-lines stuff. I don’t have any kids (If I do, the little bastards never call or write). You could read a sample bit of the wallpaper inside my brain, if you like, at another Kathy McMahon web entity: http://www.feistylife.com/deadmantalking/
    There’s only one entry, so far (dying people write slow). More might happen if the muse gets into me. Might as well exploit something – while I still can.

    IF ANY OF YOUS PEOPLE is in the neighborhood (Spokane, Washington), it would be a hoot if you joined the party. We’re bringing in 2 or 3 kegs of local brew, and an eight-piece Cuban salsa band in for the gig. Food will be pot luck (don’t let a small detail stop you!). The food & the crowd should include some interesting items. This gig won’t be getting any eco “green stars” – unless you credit us drinking local beer and for hiring local, native Cubans.

    Guy, I made e-mail connection with James a few months ago (suggesting that he might be willing to help set up & plug a Kathy McMahon (www.peakoilblues.com) visit to our fair “Pothole City” this coming October. James said he’d pitch in on the project, somehow. I think I should be able to find his e-mail address again – to invite him to see me off (I’m far from sure I’ll still be around when Kathy gets here). Just in case I don’t manage to track him down, I wonder if you might shoot him a shot. See if he’d like to have a beer with me? Before I die?

    The rest of yous – consider it, if you’re close-ish-by, maybe?
    “Poor…Dan Treecraft’s…Wake…”
    SATURDAY, June 5th, 2010
    1026 South Perry (across from “the windmill”), 2 PM till 10 PM
    or, till the cops close it down… or somebody dies.
    Here’s my pocket-phone # : (Pacific Daylight Time Zone)
    Call me & give me an E-mail address… I’ll zip you an “Official Invitation”.
    Meanwhile, pray for me to live till I make it to my own Sad (pre-need) Wake.

    Oh, guess I’m off topic, again, huh? Sorry, Guy. You make want to be a better man.
    It won’t happen again.

    Seriously – if anyone knows anything about doing sub-standard burials, give me a call. Is it possible I could be buried with a special induction, on Indian tribal land?
    Uh… I did it.. again… sorry

    Dandelion B. Treecraft

  • Dan, all the best for the crossing over. I almost went three years ago… then ye gods decided to toss me back into the pond. Go well; blessings. :-)

  • Dan, brother James here. I’ll plan to drop by your party, and we can raise a beer to brother Guy and anyone else who thinks he knows what in the hell comes next for any of us. :)
    Actually in my case it’ll be a fake beer (which I’ll bring along), since I significantly extended my own time on this earthly plane (and, not coincidentally, my marriage and a host of other meaningful relationships) by giving up the real stuff almost three decades ago.
    My best to you and your wife.

  • Okey dope – Treecraft here…. I offered to give you my cell phone#, then didn’t.

    How about this: (509) 999-1000 (Pacific Daylight Time)

    That’s better, Thank you.


  • Oh, yeah — I can account for no less than three (3) readers of N.B.L. right here in Spokane, all of them coming to my wake. We all have different last names, and none of live at the same address. Amazing! dbt

  • For those of you who have not read Dan Treecraft’s essay, I strongly recommend it. Click here.

  • Dan, over 13 years ago I had six major coronaries while fighting a fire, four of them killed me. When I woke up the doctors told me to go home and write my will. Instead of taking their advice I went out picking wild flower seeds and medicinal herbs. I covered 20 miles a day and sold the seeds and herbs on the internet. This week I am puting in a 1/10th acre vegetable garden.

    I am 63 and building a floating homestead for my girlfriend an me to retire on. I have two bullet holes and a 2′ scar from a scimitar. Some of my meds are from the VA and some are from natural sources. When I got shot in the leg the Navy doctors told me that I would never walk on it again. That was 43 years ago, I am still walking on the leg.

    Believing in doctors is somewhat like believing in the god creature, ya gotta have faith, neither theory is backed up by empirical evidence. Die if you must but it is a waste if you could have beaten the disease and proved them wrong. Attitude is a major part of the healing process.

    BTW, as an Ojibwe Indian I can tell you that everywhere in the Americas is tribal Indian land. You might try the Lower Elwha Indian Reservation near Port Angeles, Washington.

  • Dan, I too fall in the same category as Jerry, except it was cancer. Was told to go home and talk to the hospice. I mourned, then I got really angry. And found what I needed to find. I can point you to something that works. No hokey-pokey, real stuff. If you are interested, please click on the link below to my blog where I wrote about my strategy for recovery… leave me a message there. I agree with Jerry… no point going willingly…


  • Dan, I read your essay. Wish I could be there to party with you, but I will raise a glass in your honor. I wish you all the best in whatever remains to you.