Depression, stalemate, and gridlock

A friend of mine was wondering about the Great Depression. The problem they saw goes something like this. Before the stock market crash, you had people doing needed work and receiving needed wages. There was a positive economic cycle: money changes hands between lenders, employers, workers, and consumers, each of them, so far as he remains in that cycle, becoming richer and getting more needs met. But then – boom! – a problem in New York, on a particular fall day…* and suddenly no one around the country is working any longer.

Now, what sense does that make? The work is still there to be done. The people are still there to do it. The tools are available, there is time in which to do the work, there is time and nothing but time, there is too much time and nothing to do to fill it, and yet there is no work getting done. Everybody wants the work to get done, they can do the work, and they have the tools and the time; but nobody works. How can that be?

It’s a striking question. It remains interesting on closer examination, in that answering it doesn’t seem to blunt it. So if you were to say, for example: They don’t work because there is no money. The lenders can’t loan money to the employers, for whatever reason. So the employers don’t have money to pay the wages, can’t maintain the machinery, can’t order supplies, can’t transport completed goods to market, and can’t sustain operations between goods creation and sale. So the workers don’t get paid, and don’t have money to create their own operations, and are idle. So no consumers have money to buy, so other operations dry up as well, fewer lenders are making money, so lenders have less to loan, more employers are losing funding, more workers are remaining unpaid.

Well, and if you were to say that: that answer gets you nearly nowhere. For what after all is money? Isn’t it just a measure of value? We measure this much of that kind of labor and say it’s such-and-such a number of dollars, this much of that kind of material is such-and-such another number. Why would a loss of the measuring instrument result in the loss of the thing it measures (for surely in a depression labor and goods do seem to disappear)? If you destroy or damage a person’s bathroom scale, they won’t starve to death, or even lose weight as a result.

How can money, this man-made pseudo-thing, very much internal to and created by our political processes and social structures, have this power over them, as if it had substantial existence outside of them? – and how does it vanish, if no one of the people that created it and maintained it wants it to vanish and is trying to make it vanish. You return to the original question. Why should some problem, on the stock market, with the money supply, which is extraneous to people’s needs and desires, keep them from pursuing and meeting their needs and desires.

It is strange. But it isn’t singular, I don’t think. There are parallels elsewhere. For example, in love. Let’s take a couple. They love each other. They express their love to each other, they give each other energy and support, they make each other feel good, they care for each other and meet each other’s needs while each gets their own needs met. There is a kind of economic cycle of increasing happiness and well-being. Person A feels happier and more secure, so is able to aid Person B, who becomes happier and more secure, and more able to help Person A. They maintain firm boundaries and their sense of self while sharing burdens and covering weaknesses with strengths. The demonstration of love becomes a habit, which becomes a foundation for a better and deeper love.

But then take that same couple at another time, in a difficult time. Watch how their interactions with each other seem to rob them of energy. Watch how minor problems become aggravated by the other’s presence, absence, interference or non-involvement. Looking closely: the needs are still there, the skills are still there, the desires and intentions are all present, just as before. But the needs are not getting met, the skills are not being applied, weaknesses are exaggerated and insecurities increase. There is hostility and mistrust; every interaction, far from creating energy and pleasure, reduces it and robs pleasure from other activities. Far from being a refuge, the relationship becomes what you fear most. And any effort you make to turn it around or make it better involves you in so much pain you are doubly reconfirmed in your fear. The habit of distrust only finds confirmation for itself.

I think this situation will be familiar to anyone who’s had a relationship fail, or nearly fail, or observed others’ failing. And of course every relationship is different and fails in its own particular way. It’s impossible to detail the multiple reasons why any particular one fails, or why another that seems so toxic manages to continue. But a result of whatever the core problems happen to be is lack of trust, or faith, or hope. I don’t have faith that my lover isn’t trying to hurt me, I don’t believe what they say about where they have been, I can’t trust them to take care of their problems in their own way, I have no hope that they will even recognize the problems that I see. Without trust, it is and becomes increasingly more difficult to get the benefit of a relationship, because you must be continually on your guard.

The business world is not dissimilar. Any routine business transaction depends on credit, that is to say, trust. Even the existence of money is dependent on this trust, in that I trust, in receiving a dollar bill for my labor, that I will be able to convince someone else to take it, in return for goods. Likewise, in shipping goods, I trust that I will receive payment in thirty days. In paying, I trust that I have received quality goods or that I can pursue the manufacturer and recover my losses. But when lenders begin to lose trust that their loans will be repaid, or lose trust that their holdings of collateral can be redeemed for the value of the loan, when employers begin to lose trust in their ability to successfully market their goods, when workers lose trust in the payment for their labor, the cycle doesn’t continue.

I don’t mean to take away from the question. I’m not saying witnessing the failure of love might make widepsread economic failure any more comprehensible, or any more ordinary. But I do believe it is something we are familiar with, it follows a pattern that can be recognized elsewhere. Maybe the best way to describe what money is, is trust, or that its flow in a system is indicative of the level of trust in the system. So it’s not directly a measure of value, or if it is that, it is this as well, an indicator of trust, such that the disappearance of money from the system isn’t the cause, but the tell-tale sign, of the breakdown of the system.

There is another, possibly simpler analogy. Imagine automobile traffic. Take a situation where people are content with the speed they are going. Traffic flows freely and in an orderly way. Merging traffic onto a highway is allowed into the stream. Lane changes are not contested. In this situation, studies show (I don’t have a citation but I might be able to find one, I read something on the internet once, you know the way it goes), traffic actually will go faster than in the contrasting situation: Merging cars have difficulty finding space to join. The drivers in the main stream of traffic are jealous of their space and don’t allow lane changes or mergers in front of them. In this situation, the cumulative effect of each driver’s individual lack of trust and desire to ensure the fastest possible speed given the amount of traffic is that the overall speed of traffic is reduced. This reduction in speed has then the result that drivers are more anxious to increase their speed, are less likely to allow mergers or lane changers ahead of them, and contribute more to the overall reduction of speed.

Again, the issue here is a lack of trust. The aggressive driver does not trust that the flow of traffic will get them where they are going in a timely way. The trusting driver, provided they are in a system populated by other trusting drivers will, all other things being equal, arrive more quickly than the driver who is trying to go more quickly than their fellow drivers, provided the fellow drivers are also concerned about their speed and don’t trust the flow of traffic. Of course then, the trusting driver, like the trusting lover or the trusting lender, if they are in a system populated by their opposite, will find that through no fault of their own, or perhaps entirely their own fault due to their own actions, that they will arrive more slowly, be in more pain, and lose more money than their fellow citizens.

What does this amount to? Well, I don’t know that I understand my own answer. Certainly it doesn’t seem to make the question go away. How does it happen that money, or trust disappears from a system? Why do two lovers stop loving? Is there a way to make drivers just relax? These are just restatements of the original issue, in modified form. They’ve been blended, and combined, but not processed or consumed or transformed from the suspended, hanging state of the question to the settled state of the answer.

I wonder if the real portrait that emerges here isn’t of the question, which seems to have meant something different to my friend mind than to mine. Rather, it seems as though the real subject is my own mind, and my own preferences: I prefer the question not to have an answer, and I will allow myself to explore an answer only if I can feel that at the end of the exploration I will have returned to the question more puzzled than I was at the beginning. There is something in me that doesn’t want to trust an answer, that would prefer to dwell with the question, because something as problematic and untrustworthy as a question is less challenging than the answer which asks you to depend on it, and use it to solve other problems. Like the well-fed cat, I play with it and put it in terror of its life before getting bored and going elsewhere, leaving my prey as alive as when I first encountered it.

* I think this is actually a disputed point. It is an open question, from what I read on the subject, which was little and long ago, so I don’t know that I could direct you more firmly than I am about to, it is an open question whether the Great Crash really was a cause of the Great Depression. I believe the issue is that the Depression did not begin in earnest until 1931, but there were already indications of the problems to come before the crash in October 1929.

Biking and the city

Some of the best things in your life refuse to come to you except through luck, or as the backside of a problem. I didn’t choose it, but my fear of driving kept me from ever being dependent on a car. I’ve never owned a car, and never felt I had to. Admitting that I needed one, and mastering myself to the point of learning how to use one, would have been too high a price to pay. I think that’s a pretty rare bit of good fortune, in spite of all the humiliation and misery I felt during the six years I couldn’t overcome it.

I still feel a little uncomfortable riding in a car, though I don’t panic or lose control any more, and I can talk about it now. And now, it’s really only discomfort: I don’t feel comfortable with the huge disproportion between the size and importance of what’s being transported (me), and the large, loud, bulky machinery that seems required to transport it. Mass transit is different, a bus would go where it was going regardless of whether I was on it. Walking was always how I preferred to get anywhere, but for longer distances or regular transport I depended on the bus. Regular reading time, habitual mingling with people, breathing all their various smells, I find I need that even in my most withdrawn moods. A certain basic level of exposure to humanity, any kind of humanity, is part of what I require to keep myself sane.

I can’t pin down all the reasons, but certainly I was becoming more aware of my health, when I began to bike to work and forego the bus. I’ve been biking to work five days a week, and to most other places I go on the other days, for about two or two and a half years. I think I crossed the point of no return when I realized that I could reliably arrive before the bus, going between almost any two points in town. Biking has had the effect of humanizing the scale of the city: keeping it to human limits and filling in a lot of what had been sort of white space on my mental map; and also expanding the scale of the accessible city, where before it often had felt just too large: when an hour’s ride and two transfers stand between you and that photo shop you want to visit, it’s harder than when you have a pleasant breakfast and a long, flat, gentle ride along the river and the railroad to look forward to. The bicycle, as has been said only I can’t remember by who, is one of our most humane inventions. Large-scale becomes manageable scale, and it doesn’t lose its human character. Neighborhoods remain neighborhoods, they aren’t a conduit or a roadside attraction; passing traffic through one does not destroy it; but they are no longer limiting: it becomes easy to go beyond their limits.

But for me the first thing about the bicycle is its flexibility. The bus goes on established routes, at certain times and is not subject to me or my desires. I have to subject myself to it, to its driver, to his habits of braking, steering, and merging. It’s the loss of control. Walking has obvious spatial limitations, an hour’s walk, the distance from my apartment to my work, takes too much time from my day. The car appears flexible, but is not: individually, driving a car, I feel the flexibility and power. But at the end of my trip I have to deposit my ton of metal and plastic somewhere. And take up usable space while doing it. And so does everyone else: the space demanded by the car makes for non-negotiable rigidities in urban design. Acres of ground have to be flattened and made useless dead areas to store these things. Streets have to be widened, limiting productive space, then widened again to let the cars that aren’t even using the street for transit to take up space along them; and entire concrete buildings have to be built to house them, which makes for giant economic black holes in the middle of the city.

The bicycle is a more forgiving, less demanding tool. The flexibility of the bicycle, the variety of paths it can take me on, its readiness to hand and its contented nature, reflects the nature of the city. This is my idiosyncrasy, but I feel like I belong in a city, I am a human in a busy, humming happy human hive. I feel here that I have freedom and options and challenges. If I want to explore, there is plenty to learn, if I have other needs, it is here that they will be met, by other humans, who have gathered here for the purpose of meeting one another’s needs. Likewise, I feel in control of myself and unburdened on a bicycle, and able to explore and encounter life, and to live together with other humans. This is a lot to put on the slender frame of a bicycle, but though the spokes which bear the weight of the rider are thin and look weak, their curious radial design enables each to carry the load the other cannot, and they form a stronger support than an equivalent amount of metal, gathered together, without the variety and power-sharing organization of a bicycle wheel, could do.

Work and the otherworkly world

There was sudden rain, and the view of the north-west warehouses from the fifth-floor window was sunk in the kind of blue that I usually see only in lowlit photographs from digital cameras. Other people weren’t surprised, it was predicted. But I didn’t know about it, and hadn’t packed a lunch. I was counting on my burrito, rain or shine. I went out and did a ducking sort of run and reached the canvas cover of the burrito cart. The rain wasn’t the usual Portland rain, but sharp and swift and it came in at an angle. The cart was empty and unminded; the surface of the salsa was getting filmy, the cheese was starting to drown, and the wind was knocking the tinfoil around from one side of the counter to the other.

Where I was standing, the rain was blocked from going down my neck by the overhang, but it hit me all up and down the back of my legs, which now itch, and my feet are still wet. The cart stayed empty for several minutes. I don’t like a burrito but once a week, but when I want it I want it then, so I stayed. Several minutes of hopping from one foot to another, trying to peer around in the rain, ducking back under cover. Then I remembered I had inexplicably put a book in my pocket before coming outside. Good instinct however. I stood reading for several minutes before the strikingly green-eyed, skull-headed (hollow sockets, a vanishing nose with two long, upturned nostrils) burrito minder returned.

I read an argument that began with this premise: there are two approaches to the world, the otherworldly and the this-worldly. The this-worldly aren’t only those who don’t believe in life after death, but also those who did but thought it was like life now, only more so: with work, praise, society, and love; life, as it is, only pruned of pain or tedium. But those who think that there is no good to be found in this world and all that is good can only be the opposite of what we see, that this world is essentially valueless. I don’t know how far that goes in context, but out of it, it’s a fine was to divide everyone I know who works.

There are those who think their jobs are okay, but there are some things they’d like to change, but over all they are doing what they want to do. Then there are others, for whom all work is bad, it can’t be improved or ameliorated apart from making it vanish, and the real, true life is confined to what happens outside of working hours. Time goes on two tracks for this group, and the two don’t intersect.

But in the analogy, everyone in the second category is secretly a counter-platonist. Because the other-worldly person, according to the book, thinks of the other world as inviolate and separate and not dependant on this world. This world is a nothing, an illusion, or an offense. Even the adoration of the other world which he practices is a defilement, and unworthy of that world. There can be no connection. It is the platonist other world, which is purity, truth and reality itself.

But Plato himself, this is the beginning of the story, made a strange reversal, just at the point where he had developed the idea of the involate other world. At this point he turns and incorporates a strange version of this-worldism; the world that we live in turns out to be the product of the other world, what is good in it comes from that other world and so does what is bad, which is a corrupted version of the otherworldly good. Further reasoning along this line concludes that not only is the self-sufficient world the source of this world, it is also dependant on this world, its own characteristics are imperfectly expressed if it cannot be creative. In order to be the pure, good, true and real thing it is, it needs ot be the source of the less true and the imperfect thing that it creates. The blinding light creates and needs to create shadows and half-light. The shadows and the half-light, their imperfection, is part of the overall perfection, and they are themselves thus good.

But for the other-workly person, the real work, the real life, is enabled by the bad in this life, the pain in here and now is the foundation for the true glory yet to come. In order for the real life to exist at all, the work and the drudgery must be gone through, the real work or the real life wouldn’t be possible otherwise. And in the complementary turn to Plato’s, the real work is what gives this work its meaning, it is what makes it bearable. This work, as it is, is good; since it enables the other.

The burrito maker returned. I asked whether on days like this she really appreciated her job. Yes, she said, she’d been standing there, alone, watching the rain this morning, not attracting a line, and thought now why didn’t I bring a book? Reminds me what a good job this is. I said it was like camping, sitting in a tent. She said yes, or a boat. The canvas was flapping, and we were wet. I got extra sour cream and cheese on my burrito, and nearly fell asleep at my desk afterlunch, sitting in my wet things with an over-full belly.

Learning about character

A friend of mine surprised me last night. I know him about as well as I know anyone, though I don’t see him that often – he doesn’t see anyone that often. I know his interests, I know how he behaves when he’s upset, I know how he’s most comfortable and I know his own particular way of undermining himself. I am familiar with a range of motions and postures and it’s easy to pose him in my mind to match whatever position in whatever diorama I want to fit him in. But I didn’t expect to see what I saw and it makes me wonder what I have learned about him at all. Learning as a concept has been tying me in knots recently, and I get lost trying to think about what makes up character as well.

We biked up to visit him with a bucket of compost from our apartment, we’ve been helping make mulch for the garden. It started to rain, so we decided to wait out the weather instead of going to the movie we had planned to see, and sat, watching the rain, making fun of his cats, one of whom has a skin condition and no tail, listening to his screeching, irritable bird. And then when he told me about the reading he had been doing, how he had given up on music which had previously taken up all his time, hadn’t played at all for two months, and had been instead reading and researching 9/11, the Rothschilds, the Jesuits, secret plans for a North American Union and world domination put in motion and sustained by a shady cartel of business interests that came closer to their goal year by year, working steadily and single-mindedly since at least 1871, I was surprised and alarmed.

We talked about it, I gave my point of view. It is striking to compare two nearby moments in the flow of our conversation. Just a few minutes before, we had been talking about his wife’s family, he had been painting a vivid picture of her sister and brother, the new used-car business her brother and her sister’s husband had gone in on together, the feeling of their home life. It was sane, reasoned, funny and wise all at once, in the typical way he talks about life, and moving from that subject to how he spent his time while his wife was away with them, we lifted up the cover of that strange world that I didn’t expect.

Now there’s something about learning things like this. The initial surprise fades, in a deliberate way. I reasoned: he’s not crazy. If he believed his cousin or his brother-in-law was behind a large, secret conspiracy, that would be crazy. This isn’t so crazy, it’s just a lapse. The events he is trying to understand are large, and difficult to comprehend, and made more obscure because of the various interests trying to keep lights on one or another aspects, while others are keeping other parts hidden, all motivated differently and with different goals in mind. The failure is that he applies his steady, penetrating focus on certain events, facts and statements and interprets them in themselves, looking for hidden meanings in them, instead of placing them in a wider context where he can bring his accurate sense of people and realities to bear. Then he also doesn’t interact with people or information sources that would challenge the conclusions he has come to, and so they get more and more firmly rooted and then they become foundation for further reasoning.

The key to fixing these thoughts would be to return to him a perspective where the agents who are carrying out these plans are human beings just like the ones he knows, making mistakes sometimes and getting lucky other times, living from moment to moment most of the time just like everyone else, and managing to accomplish only a small fraction of what they plan, and planning in reference largely to themselves, their friends, and their ideals. This move attaches the new knowledge to an existing picture while making the minimum of modification to that picture. It resembles a time in my life when money was tight, and I spent time and energy collecting bottles for return from coworkers, doing online data entry for a penny an item, and otherwise behaving disproportionately. Naturally he understands my incredulity and he has his own explanation for why I don’t accept what he told me.

But in a way that is uninteresting, and even rings a little false. Let me try the following point of view: I don’t want to explain what I have learned and join it to a seamless picture, to turn it into just part of his larger character. There’s something truer in my failure to anticipate this development in him, and that is exactly what the reformed picture leaves out. Isn’t it where the reality comes in, isn’t that the untouchable source of knowledge, isn’t the confusion I experienced something like the dazzle from seeing the truth, and the reasoning following on that, isn’t that like blinking away the afterimage? That’s the thought in the back of my head that is daring me to try it. Learning isn’t learning, is what this point of view wants to say. Learning is the attempt to minimize surprise and discomfort following on a piece of true learning, which is fundamentally not cumulative or additive and can only be repeated confrontations which teach nothing but respect, that ordinary life and maturation require you to cover over.

New habits bear easy

I have started up a couple new habits recently. It makes me have to do things a little more deliberately, because I am still having to choose to do them instead of doing them automatically. But it’s important to keep changing habits, or at least it has become habitual, to me. There is something about a habit that shapes the time it is found in, or that flows through it. And old habits which I resurrect seem to bring with them a little bit of the former time, like a flavor of the atmosphere that you didn’t necessarily feel at the time. Like when you are away from home long enough that you notice how it smells on your return.

It’s an accidental time capsule, like a picture of the pile of library books I had out at one time, or an old recipe file, there’s an atmosphere that comes with that. The ghost of a life that you used to live, ghosts being distortions in the air. I remember the carpet that I fell asleep on one night up late working on a short story I was writing, I was in the habit of walking every evening twenty minutes to work on it and not leave until I had met a certain word goal. I think I was seventeen, I was working late, I thought I would lie down and take a rest, and when I woke up I had a spotted red area on my cheek, but the carpet I was on had waves on it. I remember that result seemed unlikely. It’s a whiff of the past in the present. The feeling was alienating and it remains a little strange.

New habits create their own atmosphere as they become habitual, before which they are just an event or an act like any other. The newest one I added yesterday, it’s really an annex to my current writing habits. I write at different parts of the day in twenty minute or 250 word chunks, and the things I am working on are all at different stages and mean different things to me, so I am running the same emotional obstacle course day after day. It makes a backbone to hang my different days on. Every day I write as fast as I can for twenty minutes first thing in the morning in my journal, I focus on one word after seven am, I am working through a shameful period in a memoir of a friend and figuring out what I learned from it, and I have serious doubts about where my pre-lunch short story is going but I manage to eke out another block of words every day. All these go together to make up the stable pattern that underlies the varied texture of this time. I wonder what of the stuff around me now would return in ghostly form if I was to bring a part of this pattern back, later in life.

Message in a bottle

Listening to the radio the other day I heard a program (sort of) about the 1977 Voyager spacecraft, launched into space with a golden record and other goodies; the hosts of the show talked to several moderately well-known people and asked what they would include. Philip Glass, for instance, would include Bach and Tuvan throat-singing (details unspecified); Neil Gaiman would include the The Wizard of Oz, among other things. Several of the folks interviewed included things it would be difficult to include on a gold record: mandarin oranges in syrup, or an entire meal at Chez Panisse.

Naturally, this got me thinking: if I were involved on the generous but foolhardy project of assembling some sort of representative selection of life on earth, what would I include? This is the sort of thing I think about while bicycling, and so the first things that popped into my mind were: the sound of bicycle wheels on pavement in all the seasons of the year; the feeling of one gets after narrowly avoiding collision with an automobile; the smell of the air on a cold, clear autumn day leaves in a slurry on the road.

Then my mind wandered: the feeling of going home to people who care for you; the desire for and receipt of the first cup of coffee in the morning; the feeling of being warm in bed on a day when you have nothing in particular planned and nowhere in particular to go; the smell of books; a very soft blanket; imagining one has done something well but not being quite sure; warming up after frostbite; the shell of a cicada; the curl of a pea-plant on a string; the smell of soil in the sunshine; water.

The more I thought about it, the less I could think of things to leave out. Even things not commonly thought of during such exercises seemed impossible to omit: quarries – chewing gum – car exhaust. Finally I reached the point (some five blocks from home on my bicycle) that really the only appropriate thing would be to wrap up the entire planet – the entire solar system – very carefully and wait.

Performance anxiety

It’s always best to begin with questionable etymology, no matter what the subject. (See, Heidegger did teach me something after all.) Wikipedia says (today) that the word sin ultimately comes from the Proto-Indo-European *es-, to be. Provocative! – to be is to sin. Even better: the word(possibly) (maybe) comes through an unattested intermediary, whose meaning is “it is true”. Truly, to be is to be in sin.

That’s how I was feeling the other morning: I can’t help but fall short. I don’t have the resources to live adequately the shortened, cramped life i’m leading now. How then could I make the fuller life I want? I’m not capable. Only so much energy. Then I have nothing. (Funnily: I tend to act out this feeling with frantic bursts of energy, shouting and stomping.)

The parable of the talents has always been terrible to me. In lower, quieter moments, I seem to hear a voice, asking: Why have you done nothing with what I have given you? Over and over again, I feel like I have given hope and disappointed it, throughout mylife from start to now. Overcommittal and underperformance are my foci, I always feel equally too close to each.

And I feel judged by a distinct personality, who has distinct hopes and wishes (which are masked from me, in the vain but loving desire to allow me my own [terrible] choice). I can sympathize with pantheism intellectually, but I don’t feel it. With a full belly and with a good night’s sleep behind me, I can talk myself into feeling the oneness of nature. But it’s a derivative oneness, with a created character, bearing the stamp of its maker. When I was still trying to believe in god, I felt that atheism would be such a comfort. There is no judgment! – because no one is there to judge. No one but myself. Now that I am confident I can’t believe, I find (with relief) that the perpetual feeling of being judged has not disappeared. Only there is no god any longer to bear the personality. I went to where he was not, and even there he still was.

The empty, worn out feeling is uncanny. I wriggle with panic in the grip of it. It seems larger than any energy I could have the use of, and I vanish in comparison while my uncompleted tasks only grow. It’s large, and dark, and heavy, and turning my eyes to it makes me furious with terror.

Also funny: the reaction that calms me down fastest: the kind of backstage banter that acknowledges the anxiety but shows its other face. It’s all a performance; the eyes that watch me from the dark don’t have power over me; I can relax and take off my mask. It’s a particular knack to this kind of banter that both affirms my sense of the immensity of the dark, but that also deprives it of ultimate reality. God is only my father, I don’t have to do anything I can’t, just dip this sponge in water and those painted lines come right off the face.