As If Things Aren’t Bad Enough

I read recently that the Totten Glacier (TG) in Antarctica may not be long for this world. Described in a Verge article by Alessandra Potenza as “a sort of canary in the coal mine,” the TG, located in East Antarctica, “contains so much ice it could raise sea levels by at least 11 feet if it all melted—and research now shows the ice is retreating because of warmer-than-usual waters brought by strong winds.” (If you need a climate-change chill, these animated maps from The New York Times demonstrate how the ice is moving toward the sea.) Given that our house in Key West sits at the whopping height of eight or nine feet above sea level, this gives me major pause for concern. Should TG melt, I would be sitting here at my desk with waves gently, one hopes, breaking over my lap as I type. In total, the Antarctic ice sheets contain 60% of the world’s fresh water. Scientists fear that the ice may now be in the early stages of unstoppable disintegration.

Okay. Melting Antarctic ice has now moved up on my prioritized inventory of things to lose sleep over, joining with melting Arctic ice and melting ice on Greenland in the top 20. (My list is up to 200 or so now I think). To add insult to injury, or perhaps anxiety to worry, I ran across an Atlantic article by Robinson Mere that asks “what lurks in the Arctic’s thawing permafrost?” The article title answers the question: “The Zombie Diseases of Climate Change.”

So, here’s the story. Greenland wants to say sayonara to Denmark, of which it is still a territory. To do this, Greenland needs an economy. Agriculture is out. Fishing is probably out. So that leaves mining and oil and gas drilling. Geographically, Greenland has an ice sheet that covers most of its middle. Around the edges, where the population of 57,000 lives, are hills, valleys, and fjords. All except the fjords are covered in turf, which deep down has been locked in permafrost for 35,000 years or so. Mining would dig up much of that permafrosted turf, exposing its materials—which include the biomass of dead plants, dead animals, and mosses—to warmer temperatures. (As one scientist described it, “At once, you are going to excavate 16 million tons of permafrost that has not been moved or perturbed in a million years or time.”) After excavation, thawing would ensue. Problem one: this process releases methane into the air, adding to our already excessive greenhouse gasses. Problem two: it also releases toxins like “bacteria and viruses long immobilized by the frost.” “Climate change,” writes Mere, “could awaken Earth’s forgotten pathogens.”

Among these are what’s called “monster viruses.” They are monster because they are large enough to be viewed by regular microscopes, something to which most viruses are invisible. One of these found in Siberia and so named Pithovirus sibericum is described as a “massive ovular virion that survived 30,000 years frozen in the ice core. It was also the largest virus ever found.” Viruses are not alive or dead, hence the “zombie disease” mentioned in Mere’s title. Their sole purpose and programming is to vamporize normal, healthy cells for their protein factories and replicate. One virion, Mere tells us, “can make tens of thousands of copies of itself nearly instantly.” Some of these pathogens we know, like smallpox; others we may not. As the above-referenced scientist observes, “No one really understands why Neanderthals went extinct.” This kind of thing is, Mere asserts, one of the “unsettling portents of climate change.” He then concludes,

Whether the emergencies of the coming century arrive in the form of fires, or floods, or plagues that rise invisibly from the ground, they’re likely to become more and more extreme and less and less familiar—a fantastical parade of crises we will be shocked to find ourselves battling. Even in its quietest places, the world will become newly hostile.

Well, after all this cheerful information, I’m in need (and you likely) of something to brighten my mood. Either that or a stiff drink. Maybe a joke will help. Let’s see. Question: How many climate-change skeptics does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: None. It’s too early to say if it needs changing. Um…drink it is then.

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Pithovirus sibericum virus viewed under an electron microscope.

 

THEM!

Back in 1954 when the Russians were still the bad guys (wait…they still are!) and we were beginning to send things flying into outer space, paranoia of many kinds ran rampant (what’s that saying, the more things change…?). One prevalent form of ‘they’re-out-to-get-us” madness then was the fear of nuclear war, mass destruction, and the end of humans (the more things change…it’s right on the tip of my tongue). In Hollywood in the 1950s, this anxiety was often portrayed via the science fiction genre, hence THEM! In this black-and-white horredy (see the trailer here), the radiation from our atom bomb tests in the New Mexico desert turned normal, everyday, just-a-bit-annoying-at-times ants into giant, formic-acid-spewing homicidal arthropods. A horrific, self-inflicted end seems to loom: “We may be witnessing a biblical prophecy come true,” observes the obligatory know-it-all scientist Dr. Medford. The United States, even the world, is in dire peril until…we kill THEM! all with flamethrowers.

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What brought this film to mind was discovering that my home belongs to THEM! Well, not the huge felt-blob-bodied, pipe-cleaner-legged puppets that nearly destroyed a pint-sized Los Angeles, but the regular kind—you know, little ones. While I suspected this from my own in-house insectoid observations, I could still cling to the thought of our abode being our own up until I read Sarah Kaplan’s Washington Post article “Your house is a giant bug habitat, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” According to Sarah,

They’re in your basement and your attic. They’re scuttling along floorboards and windowsills. They’ve turned your kitchen cabinets into complex ecosystems—complete with scavengers and parasites, predators, and prey. And there’s nothing you can do about it.

Sarah learned this from bugologist Michelle Trautwein, who’s just finished a five-year, five continent study of what lives in our walls, crawlspaces, and attics. Michelle and team found that nearly every human living space has about 100 species living it “regardless of how often the residents cleaned or how many pets they had.” These fine furless friends are mostly arthropoda—insects, spiders, millipedes, etc. We’re used to seeing spiders, ants, and cockroaches (and tiny nonarthropodian gecko lizards) here, but apparently there are others with exotic, somewhat scary names like scuttle flies, fungus gnats, and book lice.

On the positive side—and I was surprised to find there is one—the presence of bugs helps keep us healthier. Here’s how:

But she [Trautwein] believes some level of bug diversity in a home is probably healthy. Trautwein noted the growing evidence that some modern ailments, such as allergies and autoimmune diseases, may be more likely to occur because we aren’t exposed to as many microbes when we are young. Insects may play a helpful role in hosting and spreading microbial diversity indoors.

Well, okay. I guess I can live with bugs then, as long as I don’t have do things like look at electron-microscope images of what is living in my eyebrows. We might be more accepting of and feel kinder toward insects if they just weren’t so dadgummit creepy in appearance (to most of us—there’s no accounting for bugologists, officially entomologists, who dig them). If all bugs looked, and talked to us like, Lucas the Spider, it wouldn’t be a problem at all.

So, why do bugs…bug us? Jeffrey Lockwood, author of The Infested Mind: Why Humans Fear, Loathe, and Love Insects, thinks “our fear and disgust of insects [is due to] a conspiracy of evolution and culture.” Evolution taught to notice small things crawling about; culture, urban culture in particular, taught us to dislike anything that invades our homes—especially kitchens, bathrooms, and bedrooms—without asking permission or receiving an invitation. Lockwood points to the bed bug as a prime example:

The bed bug crawls into our bed at night and feeds on our blood, and then disappears. We associate the bed with intimacy and vulnerability, and this is all happening at night without our awareness. They are almost an insect version of the vampire tale, and almost evoke that sense of creepy psychosexual invasion.

Almost? Yikes. I wish I hadn’t read that last bit. I usually wake up groggy and tired. Now I think I know why. Suddenly, the bed doesn’t look as inviting as usual. I might have to look for an alternative snoocus [locus of snooze] tonight. I wonder how bed bugs feel about couches.

Image: Poster from THEM!. Fair use.

Are You Alive?

Last week on Late Night, Stephen Colbert did a rather lame segment on sex with robots. He took the opportunity to tell the world that a company is manufacturing sexbots and selling them for as much as $15,000. Today, these are just glorified sex dolls with voice recordings, what Kate Devlin describes as looking like “bad 1980s store mannequins” in her TED Talk “Sex Robots.” But the company producing them claims that eventually they will have artificial intelligence and become increasingly more humanlike in movement and manner, sort of like adult versions of Baby Born Blue Eyes or Missy Kissy I guess. Colbert’s spiel reminded me of seeing a recent Flipboard blurb leading to “Love in the Time of Robots: Are We Ready for Intimacy with Androids?” an article in Wired written by Alex Mar.

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Mar profiles, more seriously and thoughtfully than Colbert would as you might expect, android maker Hiroshi Ishiguro. Ishiguro creates androids, mostly female ones, that are “beautiful, realistic, uncannily convincing human replicas,” similar to but much less sophisticated than the penultimately “pneumatic” ones, to borrow a term from Brave New World, portrayed by human actors in the HBO science-fiction series Westworld. In building his androids, Ishiguro wants to “understand the mechanics of person-to-person interaction” but also to “untangle the ineffable nature of connection itself.” The challenge in achieving that “ineffable nature,” which the Japanese label sonzai-kan, lies in our ignorance about ourselves. As Mar describes it, “to recreate human presence we need to know more about ourselves than we do—about the accumulation of cues and micromovements that trigger our empathy, put us at ease, and earn our trust.” Someday, she says, we may build “a machine brain that can intuitively perform any human intellectual task—but why would we choose to interact with it?” The reason, Ishiguro claims, is that the more humanlike a robot appears, “the more we’ll be open to sharing our lives with it” and even feel affection for it. This is perhaps the reason AMC chose the title Humans (subtitled “Made in Our Image, Out of Our Control”) for its TV series focusing on “the social, cultural, and psychological impact of the invention of anthropomorphic robots called ‘synths.'”

It’s easy to see how the quality of “humanness” might make androids more acceptable and relatable but, as Devlin notes in her TED Talk, it’s not necessary. We already bestow human qualities on machines and interact with them as we would with other individuals. People talk to their Alexas and Siris, their TVs, their GPS devices and apps, and their computers (rant mostly in my case) all the time. It’s true that, except for Alexa and Siri and the like, the interaction is one way, but we still speak to these devices as if they could answer back if they so desired.

Of course, the fear factor is and will be a great impediment to creating “synths” that cannot be distinguished from humans: witness Ex Machina and the later version of Battlestar Galactica. There’s also the fear of somehow being turned into androids and by doing so losing our humanity. This happens, for example, in Star Trek with the Borg and in science-fiction novels like Ancillary Justice, where the AI entities are long-lived (two thousand years or more) and have multiple segments they can simultaneously inhabit and control—everything from huge star-going troopships to individual human bodies.

Perhaps the ultimate dystopian vision of robots and androids is Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the progenitor of the Blade Runner movies. In the book, most animal species are endangered or have been eradicated by extreme radiation poisoning. People can have free personal androids or even, as Rick Deckard does, own pets such as robotic black-faced sheep. Having real animals is something only the very rich can afford and a status symbol of such wealth. Another technology available to the poor is something called “Penfield mood organs,” which can induce any mood desired, mind states ranging from “an optimistic business-like attitude” to “the desire to watch television, no matter what’s on.”

So, what does the future hold for us and androids? Re the sexbots, Men’s Health writes of a man who has had a two-year relationship with his sex doll Taffy, one he had custom freckles added to for a mere $500 extra. SFGate tells us that some experts believe “by the year 2050, sex robot tourism, marriage, and prostitution will be commonplace.” Only, as the cliché goes, time will tell. Mar ends her article by describing how it was a relief for her, after spending so much time with Ishiguro and among androids, to meet, as she does, a human male in Japan with whom she could build a relationship, a relief “because it means that we are animals, not ideas; that our chemistry is not as cool as a set of programmed responses—there’s an immediate magic to it.”

I get that. I think about things like how much I enjoy the simple, heartfelt hug that Kalo comes to give me as soon as she gets up in the morning. And just now, one of my two Maine coons walked past my study door. If I were in Rick Deckerd’s world, I would celebrate that, would exclaim “Wow, I must have made it into the one percent. I should let everyone know.” I’m not in that world, though. What I really want to do, and will in a moment, is stop all this nonsense, pick one of my cats up, stroke its fur, close my eyes, and just listen to, and feel, the purr.

(Image: Robot Maria from Metropolis. Fair use.)

FicBlurt #1: You Decide

[RB Note: A while ago (June 22, 2016 to be exact), I wrote a blog called “What’s Your Eleven A.M. Story?” In it I wrote about a Joyce Carol Oate’s story, published in One Story, titled “The Woman in the Window.” In it, she looked at Edward Hopper’s Eleven A.M. and imagined a tale about the woman depicted in that painting. In that RatBlurt, I also mentioned a Tumbler blog called WriteWorld that posts a writing prompt every day. Sometimes these are images, sometimes sentences, and sometimes songs. I thought I would combine these two ideas, follow Oate’s example, and write a short, almost flash fiction story (500-1,000 words) based on an art work. So here goes. These will be one-draft, one-shot things, so gird yourself accordingly. I started one such tale in the above-mentioned blog, using the Hopper painting as inspiration. I finish it here. And so…]

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I’m just as human as you are. I put my shoes on one at a time, just like you. And just like you, I often forget to pick up my laundry and find myself with nothing to wear except the shoes you now see on my feet. It’s okay, though. I’m at home. Safe. Alone. Not naked to the world but a pleasing nude, in my mind’s eye at least, assuming a slightly expectant repose, wondering what will happen next, wondering how I might get to the laundry with just a pair of black Mary Janes to cover me. Still, sitting here, I am happy in my body, just like you I imagine, as long as I look out the window and see the future and not in the mirror where the past lies waiting.

What am I looking at, you might wonder? It strikes me that I could tell you anything at this point. I could say, for example, that I’m staring at the bald, paunchy sad little man staring back at me from the office window directly across from mine. I could say that I’m wondering what he is thinking at this moment. I doubt that he is wondering what I am thinking. It’s more likely that he’s wondering why I’m sitting here naked and that I continue to sit here naked even though he knows that I know that he’s staring at me. What’s she up to? he’s asking himself. Does she want me? Does she want me to want her? Is she taunting me? Does she think there’s someone who has never had sex and will never have sex, unless he pays for it, because he’s a bald, paunchy sad little man? Should I be flattered that she’s letting me look at her not-so-great but still what I wouldn’t give to have it take it grovel in it body? Should I be angry? Should I be sad? Should I close my blinds and go back to the stack of tax returns that shout at me day after day “we’re rich and you’re not!”

Or…I could say I’m staring at a billboard with an image of woman staring back at me. She’s not naked. She’s wearing a strapless evening gown that hugs her slim, toned, fuck-you-I’m beautiful and desirable and young and you’re not body. Her eyes don’t say fuck you, though. Her eyes say I’m here for you…in your dreams, I’m available…in your dreams, I love you…in your dreams, I want you…in your dreams, you could be me…in your dreams. Her eyes say unlike you I will never grow old, my skin will never turn sallow, my flesh will never turn heavy, my hair will never be lank and lifeless, I will never end up sitting naked in an overstuffed chair wearing broken-down out-of-fashion shoes and staring out the window waiting for that blue bird that never comes.

I could say that. I could say anything. What would it matter? Tell you what. You decide what I’m looking at. You decide whether I’m happy or unhappy. You decide whether I get up and step out of the opening in front of me or stand up, get dressed or don’t get dressed, go to work or take a personal day, answer phones for people who will never sit naked and stare out a window or bestow a long overdue middle finger on them and escape, eat a box lunch or have a fresh chef salad from the deli around the corner, drink burned coffee or get a just-right latte soy milk no sugar, have a life or don’t have a life. You decide. Because I can’t. I never could. I never will.

[Image prompt: Edward Hopper, Eleven A.M., 1926. Fair use.]

Twilight of the Clods

Last Friday marked the blockbuster opening of the blockbuster weekend of the blockbuster film Thor: Ragnarok. I won’t go into the intricacies of the movie’s plot other than to say it involves something called the Infinity Stones, Thor being imprisoned by a fire demon and then escaping, and then all hell breaking lose for the Norse god and friends. The latter phrase, “all hell breaking lose,” sums up Ragnarok, an event many Thor fans probably were unfamiliar with before the film drew attention to it.

Translated from Old Norse, Ragnarok means “Fate of the Gods” or, if you prefer Ragnarokkr, “Twilight of the Gods.” What happens during Ragnarok in a nutshell, or a nøtteskall in Norwegian, is this: an epic battle ensues, many of the major Norse gods die, and our world suffers numerous natural disasters (the sun turns black, steam arises, flames torch the heavens, that sort of thing) and ends up being submerged in water. (Why does this sound so familiar?) Then, eventually, the world surfaces again, renewed and fertile, and the two surviving humans—who can apparently hold their breath for an incredibly long time—repopulate it. This is, I assume, great fun for Lif, the male; for Lifthrasir, the female, not so much. The world record for giving birth, according to Guinness, is 69, achieved by a Russian peasant woman in the 1700s who had sixteen pairs of twins, seven sets of triplets, and four sets of quadruplets. Lifthrasir would have to be much more productive than that. One hopes she might persuade the surviving gods, if any, to relieve her birthing burden by doing the fashion-figure-out-of-clay-and-breathe-life-into-it thing that supreme beings can purportedly do.

According to some, Ragnarok should have happened already. The Jorvik Viking Centre (in York, England of all places) expected it to occur on February 22, 2014, based on Viking calendars. Putting aside that “minor” miscue, though, the Jorvik provides some interesting information on the Vikings. One, they used to raid church properties in the Viking Age (800 to 1500 AD) because that’s where the money was, and two, they often sold prized ecclesiastical articles back to the “stolees.” So, along with being the people that populated and civilized the entire known world (my theory, yet unproven, but many people have told me it’s true), the Vikings also invented the medieval version of ransomware—let’s call it, “ransomillage” [collecting ransoms via pillage rather than software].

When you search for “Ragnarok” on the Jorvik website, zero results pop up. The center, apparently, has learned its lesson. So, no further enlightenment there re the end of all things. I did, however, discover the Viking Festival 2018, an event in February that commemorates the “arrival and conquest of England by the Great Viking Army in AD 866.” The celebration includes “living history encampments, walks, talks, tours and of course, dramatic combat performances.” Given my Norwegian background, I’m not sure I can pass up an opportunity to attend the Viking Banquet Experience (“special themed menu”) or observe (or, dare I?, enter) the Annual Strongest Viking Competition. That’s assuming, obviously, that Ragnarok does not rear its ugly head before then. Perhaps, in preparation for the world’s finale, the Jorvik should add some participatory events to its festival. There could be things like a rooster-crowing contest, wolf wrestling, Loki-escape demonstrations, and battles of wits, all of which supposedly play a role in Ragnarok.

Sadly, Thor dies in the Norse mythology version of Ragnarok. While besting the giant serpent Jormungandr, he gets poisoned and expires after walking nine steps. I haven’t seen the movie but, somehow, I doubt he suffers a similar fate in it. Hollywood has its own mythology, namely, that of the “happy ending,” which is achieved, as I discovered via Finlo Rohrer’s “Why the obsession with happy endings?,” through the process of happyendification. Oddly, I’m not put off by this. I don’t view it, as some do per Rohrer, as “fundamentally crass, a sign of the excessive commercialization of the concept of story, of pandering to our weaker side.” Rather I’m wondering how we might apply it to the real world. We could use a little happyendification right now, especially given how certain here-unnamed oafish leaders appear bent on creating their own version of Ragnarok. Given that we are certifiably inept at nonfictional happyendification, we would have to rely on, as the ancient Greeks did, a deus ex machina, which raises the thorny question, “Who you gonna call?” My vote goes to Doctor Who. Trouble is, the only way to get in touch with him is through “a crack in the skin of the universe” and the only way to create such a crack is to reboot everything in existence…which is exactly what Ragnarok will do.

Well, who knew? The wished-for happy ending was staring me right in the face and I didn’t realize it. That’s a relief. Now I can put aside all existential angst and focus on the next major concern, which is lunch. Best of luck, Lif and Lifthrasir. Let’s hope you make a better job of it than we did.

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Image: The twilight of the gods showing Asgard in flames and the rainbow bridge Bifrost broken (by Willy Pogany, 1920). Public domain.

Nothing Is Our Own But…

In Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan, the soldiers on Mars, who are training to invade earth because it’s warmer there and has breathable air, are controlled remotely via an antenna implanted in their brains. Even the officers are manipulated, along with thousands of men, by several hundred individuals who comprise the “real commanders,” men with ranks below sergeant sprinkled among the robotic troops. The latter march smartly from place to place, kept in perfect rhythm by the sound of a snare drum resounding in their heads, or as Vonnegut describes it, “rented a tent, tent, tent; rented a tent, tent, tent; rented a tent; rented a tent; rented a tent, tent, tent.”

In BrainDead, the one season sci-fi series on CBS, aliens disguised as ants come to earth and infiltrate the federal government by taking over various politicians and staffers. They do this by crawling into their heads via the ear canal when they are asleep and assuming dominance over part of the brain. Why not all of it, I don’t know. So, while the BrainDead robots had ants instead of antennas in their heads, the effect is much the same. The captive individuals started implementing the ants’ agenda, whatever that may have been, acting more than a little strangely as they did and sometimes having their skulls explode. The series joke was that no one in the outside world really noticed that Washington was “bugged.”

Mind control of humans by creatures from far away and long ago is one of the hoariest of speculative fiction story lines. We humans have also been at it a long while. It used to be called brainwashing (The Manchurian Candidate, Clockwork Orange, or 1984, anyone? Anyone?). Now that we’re cruising along at breakneck speed in the digital age, we have better tools for this than the hoaknosis approach often used in film and fiction (“Do you see the queen of hearts, Raymond?”). Indeed, efforts at mind control are rampant these days. Here are some examples of “modern” present or potential mind-control methods assembled by the Activist Post (“Propaganda for Peace, Love and Liberty”):

  • Education (obvious yet insidious)
  • Advertising/propaganda (turns our wants into needs)
  • Predictive programming (click this link for a list of films that purportedly “suggestify” and “condition” viewers)
  • Sports, politics, religion (these teach us to divide and conquer)
  • Food, water, air (things added to FWA “alter brain chemistry to create docility and apathy” and fluoride in water lowers IQ per this source)
  • Drugs (described as “medical tyranny”)
  • Military testing (DARPA, apparently, is working on a “transcranial mind control helmet”)
  • Electromagnetic spectrum (cellphone towers are mind-control monsters of the id waiting to be wakened)
  • Television, computers, and the flicker rate (watching puts us to sleep while programming takes place)
  • Nanobots (brain rewiring made easy)

Cracked offers a less Doomsiratorial but just as thought-provoking exploration of mind control. Take, for instance, the practice known as “priming.” We learn from Cracked that that sea of fragrant flowers we encounter when we step through the door of a grocery store is not accidental. No, “a product that is highly perishable yet fresh will ‘prime’ you into thinking of freshness, and you will carry that ‘freshness’ mindset all the way back to the discount meat counter.” Cracked goes on to describe other mind-bending items like the color of pills, specific wording of concepts, singing in groups, and the “facial expressions” of cars.

While people can certainly go off the deep end when it comes to worrying about someone or something messing with our minds (see the Montauk Project for example, which some consider responsible via “programming” for the actions of Ted Bundy, David Berkowitz, Timothy McVeigh, and others of their ilk), attempts at mind control permeate our environment. Friends, teachers, newscasters, politicians, product manufacturers, and, yes, even dogs and cats (especially cats!) all try to warp our thinking and actions in some way or another. There’s no escaping it. There’s no defense against it really, no matter where you might go to try to escape it. North Pole? Think of the aurora borealis particles raining down on your brain matter. South Pole? Same thing. Outer space? More radiation and who knows what dark matter does to us? No wonder headaches, mental and/or physical, psychological and/or sociological, financial and/or political, have become ingrained in our lives.

But wait. All may not be lost. I can think of two ways to ward off all encephalitic encroachments and preserve one’s mind as one’s own. For all things people-related, it’s adopting the Bartleby approach, which involves standing in one place and perpetually pronouncing “I prefer not to.” For cats, “No! Go away!” usually works.


P.S. In case you were wondering, the title is part of a bastardized quote from 1984. The real cite is “nothing was your own except the few centimeters inside your skull.”

 

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You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.

 

Fear the Reaper?

At the end of my annual physical exam last week, my doctor congratulated me on my good health report and told me, with a smile, that with such good numbers I would likely live forever. My response? You’re kidding, right? While eternal longevity is appealing in some respects, for many adults, especially in first-world countries with decent, or at least adequate, and somewhat affordable or, if you’re lucky, free health care, this is a scary fiscal prospect and prompts them (well, me anyway) to start checking out the nutritional values of the ninety-nine-cent cans of cat food at the supermarket. According to the Centers for Disease Control, if you are white and male, as of 2015 your life expectancy would be 76.6 years, which means I have about ten years to go. That seems manageable in terms of paying the mortgage, buying food, etc., etc. But forever? That, I’m thinking, would require socialism to run rampant and a Star Trek home replicator.

What prompted me to cogitate about the positive side of mortality, if you can all it that, was a Laughing Squid piece called “A Look at the Idea of Ending Aging and Avoiding Death.” The page features two animations, one titled “End Aging?” and the other “Why Die?” The first video asks why not put an end to the cause of all disease: the process of aging? Aging is caused by physics, it says, not biology. More specifically, it’s wear and tear from “trillions of physical processes.” Our ability to repair the damage they cause diminishes with age. We don’t die of old age, we die “because one of our important parts breaks.” Since we are starting to understand the process of aging better and better, someday we may be able to stop it. Then they get to the real questions: “Should we end aging? Is this a good idea?” They dodge answering, however. (I guess I, the passive reader, am supposed to come with something. Sheesh! What cheek!) Instead, they talk about how one problem now is we wait too long to try to “fix” things and spend most of our health-care dollars on treating age-related diseases rather than preventing them. But even if we did stop aging, we wouldn’t stop death in all the other forms in which it pops up. Or wouldn’t we?

That’s the subject of the second animation, “Why Die?” It starts by asking “When do you want to die? The Reaper is busy, but he can fit you in…right now.” But don’t be scared. The Reaper tells us, it says, “I am your friend,” apparently because he saves us from living too long and wallowing prolongedly in the sad ennui of feeling useless and bored. “Death is a part of life, he whispers. Death gives life meaning.” In response, the narrator tells us that “this is madness.” To end our tendency to think death is inevitable, “brains need to be cleared of the millennia of death acceptance.” Instead, we should view it as just another degenerative disease, one that “infects” everyone, and focus on discovering and building the tools that will make that malady, and the Reaper, a thing of the past.

This assertion seems to comprise a pinch of hunky-dory and a huge dollop of wishfulthinkingness. Don’t expect the Grim Reaper to slink away meekly into the night, never to be seen again. He does have a job, you know, and likely takes it seriously. As Death tells us in Terry Pratchett’s novel Mort,

WHERE THE FIRST PRIMAL CELL WAS, THERE WAS I ALSO, said Death [Death speaks in caps because he has no vocal cords and so the words just appear sonically inside your head “in a voice like lead slabs being dropped on granite”]. WHERE MAN IS, THERE AM I. WHEN THE LAST LIFE CRAWLS UNDER THE FREEZING STARS, THERE WILL I BE.

In “How the Grim Reaper Works,” author William Harris informs us that we humans invented the GR to make sense of death and dying by “giving it a form [we] recognize.” The ancient Greeks came up with Thanatos, a handsome, pleasant young man. The Vikings (yay!) thought the Valkyries, beautiful young women, were a better idea for someone to carry you off to the hereafter. There were also various “angels” of death materializing here and there, including in Europe in the Middle Ages, and that’s where, after all those pesky, depressing plague years, death started being depicted as a skeleton with a black cloak, an hourglass, and a scythe.

Ironically, despite his forbidding appearance, it’s the Grim Reaper that gives most of us the will to put off that last mortal-coil shuffle-off as long as possible. You might think the reason is that simple “consider the alternative” response to “why go on living?” But it’s not that. It’s something better and here it is:

“I meant,” said Ipslore bitterly, “what is there in this world that makes living worthwhile?” Death thought about it. “CATS,” he said eventually. “CATS ARE NICE.”

I couldn’t agree more. As an added bonus, having cats gives you appreciative companions with whom to share your dinner. What will it be tonight, boys? The Tasty Treasures Accented with REAL Bacon or the SauceSations?

 

Mort
Finally! Took an extra long lunch break today, did we?

 

Image: A Western depiction of Death as a skeleton wielding a scythe. Public domain.

Getting Piggy with It

So my Flipboard app, which offers partinterest* articles for perusal, came up with this suggestion recently: “Is Ikigai the New Hygge?” A quick look at the opening paragraphs from Country Living informed me that I was ignorant (not surprising at all) of two lifestyle trends, one hot now, one hot last year. Let’s start with last year’s, which will give me at least a fleeting sense of catching up on pop culture. Country Living helps with this as well in “What Is Hygge? Everything You Need to Know about the Danish Lifestyle Trend.”

Pronounced “hoo ga,” author Lyndsey Matthews explains, “this Danish concept cannot be explained in one single word but encompasses a feeling of cozy contentment and well-being through enjoying the simple things in life.” She notes that a national obsession for hygge is what makes Denmark one of the world’s happiest countries “despite their infamously miserable winters.” Now, she writes, the rest of the world is beginning to catch on. Her article appeared last January and, in the six months before that, she reports, articles on this trend appeared in The New York Times and The New Yorker and six books on it were published.

Basically, what you do to get or be hygge is put on baggy sweatpants, turn off all electronic devices, get a fire going in your fireplace, switch off all electric illumination and light candles, grab a cup of hot cocoa and a good (physical) book, and chill…or figure out what the equivalent of all this would be in your zip code or latitude/longitude.

After reading this, I checked out the NYT article, “Move Over, Marie Kondo: Make Room for the Hygge Hordes” just for kicks. When I saw the title, I said to myself, “Self, well, crap. Here’s another ‘thing’ I know nothing about. Who’s Marie Kondo?” The NYT piece, and the Country Living one, reference Meik Wiking, head of the Happiness Institute in Denmark. He was so good as to inform us that hygge has an adjectival form: hyggelig. As in, I had a very hyggelig day today. How was yours?” Wiking (pronounced “Viking”!) explains that he measures “hyggeness” (my word, not his) by things like how many pounds of candle wax you burn and how many pounds of bacon you eat. Who knew bacon was a comfort food? The Danes consume, on average, thirteen pounds of candle wax per capita annually. They also eat 6.5 pounds of bacon, which is less than we do (yikes!), so in that respect we out-hygge them I guess.

Here in Key West, we have several strikes against us should we set out in pursuit of hyggeness. One, we don’t have winter, so the appeal of fireplaces, blankets, bulky clothing, and cocoa is limited. Two, except when hurricanes come calling, our candle-wax consumption is a pittance compared to that of the Danes. On the positive side, we have a Wendy’s, which means we have The Baconator: two ¼ lb. patties with six strips of bacon and cheese and “not a single veggie to get in the way.” It weighs in at 950 calories, which means you could have two of them per day and keep your calorie count roughly normal. So, all we need to do here to achieve hyggeocity is put on ultralight breathable sweatpants, take a favorite paperback down to Duval Street, and curl up at a corner table with a Baconator. Who knows, they might even have cocoa (well, hot chocolate) there and, if you ask nicely, run one of those crackling eternal fireplace videos on the TVs. Sounds like nirvana, doesn’t it? Or perhaps hyggevana (pronounced “hoo ga vah nah”) would be more correct.

Made20bacon

Tomorrow (or someday soon): Ikigai elucidated (perhaps).

*Articles tailored, so they say, to your curiosities.