RE: NDEs, Songs & Poems, Garbled Nonsense.
Chapter Seven-Minor Sins and the Vice Matrix
It is now late February 2008, and I have just begun to settle into my little house in Kilmarnock. In the first few weeks of the new year I have mainly been concerned with setting up my home, with moving my belongings, and with getting familiar with the town and my new surroundings. I am volunteering at the local free health clinic, partly because it is a good thing to do, and also because I feel that the contacts I am making there may help me when I am looking for work. I have put in a few applications so far with no luck, and plan to hit up a couple of insurance companies next week. I am also singing again, something I have not done since graduate school, in the local Episcopal church. The voice is a little rusty, but I am enjoying it so far. I’ll need to cut down on my smoking if I am to be able to hit the high notes like I could in the past. Today is Sunday, and before the service, one of the other choir members mentioned that he had driven by my new house. He has expressed an interest in one of my bushes, a Gardenia, and says that he will fill in the hole for me after he transplants it! I guess I wouldn’t mind giving it to him, since I am not much of a gardener. The lady who lived here before planted a lot of things, and I am starting to wonder, with some foreboding, exactly what will start coming up or blooming in the spring, and how much work that will entail.
The yard is not large, but will require some maintenance, and I will have to get accustomed to cutting the grass and trimming the shrubbery, since I have been until now an apartment dweller. There is a birdhouse out back, and mom, being a bird person, would like me to fix it up and maybe add a couple more; but I have enough to do as it is for now. Maybe, being more of a rodent fan myself (as you know), I’ll put up a squirrel feeder instead. There are dozens around here, and I would love to make friends. I used to feed the squirrels at a job I once had. They would come up to the back door of the office, and I would give them popcorn, or chips, or whatever I happened to be snacking on, until they were just about tame enough to eat out of my hands. They got to where some of them would even scratch at the door to request a treat! I have tossed the squirrels around the house some rat treats that Angus refuses to eat-nasty fish meal concoctions such as they are, really just to get rid of them. The squirrels probably won’t eat them either. If I can make friends with the squirrels well enough to get them to come up to the house, I’ll have to introduce them to Angus. He might enjoy meeting his bushy-tailed cousins.
I’ve been having strange dreams again lately. From the time of about Thanksgiving all through the holiday season and the first few weeks of the new year, my dreams had seemed to be either absent or quickly forgotten after waking. There was none of the strange lucidity I experienced in the dreams which led me to begin writing this book. In the month of February I started having a few interesting ones again, perhaps as a birthday present (my birthday is February 1st). Some seemed to have as their theme frustration, or a working out of problems from the past and present. In one, I found myself back on the campus of St. Olaf College, my alma mater, floating or flying down the sidewalks among the academic and dormitory buildings like the evil warlock from the movie of the same name! I could just “stand” a foot or so above the surface and float along at a fairly good pace. As I mentioned earlier in the book, flying and jumping in a way that is not humanly possible is nothing new to me in the dream state, but this dream became more disturbing towards the end when I realized that I could not interact with the other people (students) walking the campus all around me. They were not floating, but ambling along in the normal human fashion, and I came to realize that I was dead to them, and they to me: I was a disembodied spirit visiting a haunt of my previous life. Mercifully, I woke up pretty soon after that.
I dreamed two nights ago that I was in a hotel, I do not know which one-it was just a generic amalgam of all the ones I have ever stayed in, I suppose. The dream began outside in the street where my car was parked, and though my memory of this part of the dream is not perfect, I think someone stole some of my luggage and later my car. By the end of the dream, I was in the dining area of the hotel but could not seem to get out, or make myself leave, even though the doors weren’t locked and no one was restraining me. My rat Angus was there, and then just as someone had stolen my luggage and car, someone stole his cage and left him in a little box just big enough to fit his body, like a coffin. He was alive and I retrieved him, and concluded this nocturnal fantasy by stealing him some abandoned cookies off of empty tables.
Last night, or more properly in the early morning hours, there were a couple of good ones back to back. In one, I found myself in a shopping mall and as it was in the hotel dream, I couldn’t get out of the mall. I think I was looking for a store, perhaps a tobacconist or bookstore (knowing my own tastes), and when I finally got there the store was empty and moved away. There was a woman sitting at a table, and she pointed to a nasty looking burn on her arm while warning me to stay away. This will happen to you if you try to hang around here or ask what became of the establishment you were looking for! Then, as I continued trying to find my way out of the strange and labyrynth-like mall, I ended up in a huge, ampitheatre-like area with other shoppers, some with the goods they had purchased and some holding nothing at all. The shoppers with nothing seemed to have children, however, but the children had been seperated from them into another area and were crying for their parents, who were also anxious to get back to their offspring. We were then all lectured by some people, authorities whether of the shopping mall or of the state, as to “irresponsible spending,” as if the consumer’s very autonomy concerning his own finances had been taken away and delegated to the government. We were not to be released until we were somehow reeducated, but I was myself allowed to leave before the dream ended. I do not know, of course, what happened to the other people or to their children.
The mall dream faded and melded into a dream going back once more to my college years, in which I sang in choirs and participated in concerts and choral festivals. The setting of the dream was an outdoor choral festival, albeit one which could not seem to get started. We sat in chairs on the grass, music was passed out, and we were always just about to sing, but it never happened. Then, in a bizzare “dream within a dream,” I woke up in the back of my car. The car was rolling uncontrolled backwards down a hill, and I saw that one of the other singers was asleep in the driver’s seat. I crawled up front and reached the brake pedal, then stopped the car and the other chorister and I began walking back to the dysfunctional choir. Then I woke up for real and saw that it was 10:00 A.M. and time to get up.
What do these dreams mean? All involve the idea of loss, whether of control of my car, my belongings, my rat’s home, or my physical existence itself. Certainly in these last few months I have been thrown from one environment to another, and from almost supernatural revelatory experiences to the drudgery of writing and editing a book while looking for “honest work” in a rural area with few jobs. I have a small amount of savings to work with, so I will push on. I feel it is important somehow, even if no one ever reads it besides my family and friends.
Speaking of family and friends, I spent Christmas in Pennsylvania with my sister, her husband Matt, and their two daughters Kathryn and Virginia. The two mice that had survived my moving to Virginia from Charlotte had by this time had a litter. I had had no takers among the local schools for the mice, but my sister likes animals and she said to bring them on up. This I did, and made the journey in good time, though I got lost for a while when I tried to go into Fredericksburg to find a tobacco store. Those vices are my downfall every time! The girls were excited to see the new additions to their menagerie (a dog, some fish, a tarantula and two ferrets they did not know about but which were about to be delivered as a Christmas present), but I had to deny them the experience of viewing the baby mice since they were still pink, helpless and frail. After I came home, I learned that my sister’s family had begun to have the same problems I experienced with keeping mice, namely that they tend to get away. She lost two of the babies right after they got their hair, and I told her she would probably never see them again, though they will probably manage to survive quite well in her house.
We had a good Christmas. I was somewhat frazzled by the volume at which the kids enjoyed their TV, and by their dedication to “Spongebob Squarepants.” I am finding it difficult even now to get the theme song out of my head. Blow the man down! The kids must be a handful. My brother-in-law is a pro wrestling fan-he knows it’s fake but likes it for its entertainment value. Kathryn, and to a lesser extent Virginia, have been influenced by the sport (or spectacle), and are fond of running around, putting each other in headlocks, and jumping off the furniture. I was just about terrified my first day there when Kathryn jumped off the staircase, flew over my head, and landed on the sofa. I knew if I tried it I would break my arm or leg, but kids are tough. Another time, Kathryn pushed her younger sister (pretty tough, apparantly, in her own right) in my direction and her little head even hurt me slightly as it crashed into my kneecap. Virginia was not hurt, though there were a few tears probably due mainly to humiliation.
My sister (her name is Susan) and I endulged a couple of favorite vices, I’ll not say which ones, as we wiled away the week before Christmas shopping for last-minute gifts and keeping the girls entertained. Kathryn and Virginia were particularly taken by my rat, and were always wanting to hold him. (“Uncle Robert, can we hold the Rat?”) I was a bit wary of this while the dog was around, because I could see her intentions were not quite pure, but gave in when the hound was out of the room. Angus is a sweet rat, and I have no fear of him hurting even a five year old child. On Christmas morning the girls opened their presents, and I left the next day.
As I drove back to Virginia I began to think about the importance of family, and about my brother Tyler. He had spent Christmas with my parents and aunt in New Mexico, and I would have loved to have been there, though I felt my presence in Pennsylvania with my sister’s family was valuable in that we hadn’t seen each other in a while, and the girls hardly knew their uncle. Indulging the old vices with Susan is always fun, though there is not the same intellectual aspect as there is with my brother. When Tyler and I got drunk or high, we seemed to connect on a spiritual level and have conversations which, even if they were largely forgotten in the morning, had deep significance.
Susan and I never tripped on acid together. We smoked some pot, of course, but that is neither here nor there. Cannabis does pretty much the same things to everyone-it makes you comfortable in the moment, zoned out, bored yet content. Tyler and I did however use LSD several times in the years 1994-1995, and became much closer as a result. Those years are what I would now call the hippie era in my life, a time after my graduate school years in which it became evident that music composition might not have been the most lucrative of fields to go into, especially since I found I had little love for the discipline of teaching. I got my master’s degree in Music Composition in 1993, but in 1994 moved back to my hometown of Charlotte and started hanging around with my brother, and both of us were up to no good. I had just gotten an advanced degree, but had no job prospects and earned a living filing medical records. Tyler dropped out of high school, but later got his GED with high honors and went on to college and grad school-he is no slouch. The point is, in 1994-1995 we were both wanna-be hippies, and we were both drinking, smoking lots of pot, and dropping acid when we could find it-exploring the intricities of the vice matrix, and loving every minute of it.
The years of 1994-1995 were also the last years of the Grateful Dead, since Jerry Garcia died on August 9, 1995. Tyler and I managed to see the band in three shows during those two years. These were 7-16-94 at RFK Stadium, 10-9-94 at USAir Arena in Landover, Maryland, and in Charlotte, NC on 3-23-95. It was not Haight-Asbury 1966, but still to see old Jerry come out that first time (for me) in Washington, DC and sing “Cold Rain and Snow” was quite an experience and the closest connection to the summer of love I will ever have. We tripped at the Landover show, and I had a hallucination of floating above the crowd outside my body and hovering above the stage. The Charlotte show was what they call a bit of a buzzkill-in my hometown, hippies aren’t much tolerated and there were security guards moving through the crowd making people put their cigarettes out. This was a far cry from my first show at RFK, where part of the crowd, intoxicated by the many joints being smoked as the Dead jammed, crashed the barriers and mobbed the infield. My brother and I ended up right by the sound equiptment right in front of the stage. I do remember that after the show Tyler and I bought a couple of nitrous oxide balloons and a chunk of hash in the parking lot to finish out the experience and get perked up for the journey home.
There was also a show at Soldier Field in Chicago which I believe was the week after RFK. Tyler and I went with a friend, but we couldn’t get tickets. Before leaving, we had procured a half-ounce of South Carolina “skunk weed” and smoked a lot of it on the way up the road. We lost most of the bag in the parking lot in Chicago to a sharp-eyed police officer who caught us rolling a joint. He only confiscated the marijuana: in Charlotte we probably would have gone to jail. We were stuck outside the show with no pot and no tickets, and were about to start heading back down the road to Charlotte when, as was often the case in the parking lot at Grateful Dead shows, we found some more drugs. These were in the form of a few LSD tabs called “Beavis and Butthead” and a small bag of mushrooms. Tyler, our companion and I dosed the acid and started driving around downtown Chicago.
Most LSD these days is usually pretty weak, but “Beavis and Butthead” was an exception. After a while, as the lights of the big city streamed and trailed in psychedelic patterns in the air all around us, our friend remarked that “Beavis and Butthead were kicking his ass all up and down Chicago.” We thought it would be a good time to get out of the city, so we headed south. I remember that at a rest area my brother got out of the car and just started running back and forth across the grass (I’m sure people thought he was crazy), but it seemed perfectly natural to us. Sometimes you just have to let it out-especially when your body feels as if an electric current is passing through it and the trees, buildings and everything else around you seem to be moving of their own accord. It can make you want to move right along with them. By the time the acid wore off, we were in Kentucky, though I’m not exactly sure how we got there. Tyler was driving, but I’m not sure he knew either. We stopped at Daniel Boone National Forest and hiked down a trail just to be somewhere quiet. We also dosed the mushrooms, but they turned out to be fake, so we eventually headed home.
I think this hippie period of my life ended on August 9, 1995 with the death of Jerry Garcia. By that time, I had stopped filing medical records and was working as a canvasser for North Carolina Wildlife Federation. I got the news before work that day, and even cried (along with a couple other hippie liberal types) in the van as we travelled to our work city, Morganton I think. When you ask for money you can’t always do it in the same place, even if it is for a good cause. When Jerry died, there were impromptu memorials all over the country. There was even one that evening at “Hippie Hill” in Freedom Park in Charlotte, though it was certainly nothing to rival the gathering in San Francisco. The police were threatening to drag us away in paddy wagons when we overstayed our welcome and remained in the park after closing time (typical Charlotte), so I got a joint from my sister and one of my wildlife-canvasser friends and I went to his apartment and smoked it. Just one final homage to Captain Trips. Then we played a game with the cigarette lighter which involved tossing it back and forth to one another and trying to catch it on the backs of our hands. Pot smokers never lack for entertainment.
In the years since then, I’ve smoked quite a bit of pot but left LSD alone. It has shown me everything it can show me, and would probably bore me if I tried it now. I remember Tyler telling me the very first time we tripped together that I would that night “find the answer to all my problems, the answer to everyone else’s problems, and forget it all in the morning.” That is pretty much true, though I will never forget the first time the trees seemed to sway without wind, the first time I saw “trails,” the “white spots” that were my own white blood cells (see Chapter Two poem LSD-25), and the way in which I seemed to see projected on the levolar blinds in my bedroom images from the Bugs Bunny cartoons I had recently been watching. I was trying to find myself in those years, and also trying to connect with a bygone era of peace, love, and mind expanding drugs that had always held a special fascination for me. I always wanted to be in that time, in San Francisco in 1966 or 1967, listening to the Dead or Jefferson Airplane while tripping on LSD, which was at that time perfectly legal. Back then, the hippies really thought they were changing the world by doing these things, but the time is gone and with it their dream. Drugs are if anything less socially acceptible now as ever, and are seen as an illness. They certainly can be just that, especially harder drugs like cocaine and meth, but it is amazing to me that a mild hallucinogin like cannabis is still so harshly criminalized. In the words of Jerry Garcia, society wants to put anyone who wishes to change their consciousness in jail, and this is not right. Unless a drug user is endangering others, using force against them is not justified.
As mentioned above, LSD was legal in the early days of the summer of love, and in the years before. The military and CIA experimented with it in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, trying to find an application suitable for war or espionage. High doses were given to military and even intelligence personnel without their knowledge. I remember seeing an old film of a company of soldiers staggering around. The narrator commented on the soldiers’ inability to follow simple orders after being given “a small amount (?) of LSD.” Go figure. There is also that incident involving a CIA agent who was dosed heavily and ended up jumping out of a window to his death. Private use of LSD increased during all this time up to the hippie years, but the downfall of LSD legality was the social unrest that began in the late ‘60s along with Nixon’s first “war on drugs.” There was a feeling in the government that maybe drugs in general were contributing to the unrest. Not only could LSD not be used to create a better soldier, it might even lead to, say, criticising the Vietnam War! But acid never went away.
Cannabis is another story. LSD is a more recent drug, though similar effects have been experienced throughout history by people who ingested rye infected by Ergot-the fungal precurser to LSD, or various other natural hallucinogins. Cultivation of the hemp plant for its fiber goes back to the beginnings of civilization as early as 8000 B.C.E., with cultivation for its intoxicating or medical effects not lagging too far behind. The Chinese used it in the third millenium B.C.E. to treat arthritis and gout. Scythians used it in religious ceremonies, along with many other people. Cannibis was given to women for labor pains in ancient Egypt. In 1850s America, extract of hemp was a popular medicine (and there were far more harmful “cures” being marketed around that time, to be sure). Betsy Ross’ flag and the Declaration of Independence are made of hemp fiber. Hemp oil fueled many a nineteenth century lamp, and Henry Ford experimented in 1930 with a car that ran on hemp fuel.
The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 led to the elimination of hemp as an industrial, therapeutic, or recreational product. Though publicly the criminalization of hemp was linked to its use as an intoxicant, with lots of racist claptrap about how reefer-crazed blacks and Mexicans were getting high and raping white women, the real reasons for hemp’s demise were its industrial applications. The very word “Marijuana” was coined by William Randolph Hearst because it sounded more sinister than hemp or cannabis. Hearst, of course, had a monopoly on newspapers. He also had friends in the timber industry. Paper can be made from either hemp or trees, but it is a little cheaper to just cut down trees than to grow hemp, even though growing hemp causes less damage to the environment than clearcutting forests. By the way, Hearst owned millions of acres of those newsprint-destined trees. Hearst published a string of articles defaming hemp and its alleged danger to society simply to protect his financial interests.
At the same time, Andrew Mellon, owner of Gulf Oil, Secretary of the Treasury, and the richest man in the world was heavily invested in Lammont DuPont’s new petrochemical industry. Hemp can be used to make many of the same products that are derived from fossil fuels, so these two men stood to lose from any exploration of hemp’s potential in this direction. Mellon contracted his nephew-in-law, Harry Anslinger, to eradicate the growing of hemp through the Marijuana Tax Act, and the rest is history. I do feel that though these are the real reasons marijuana became illegal in America, they are not the reasons it stays illegal. It stays illegal largely through ignorance, and an unwillingness to change the status quo. The drug is much safer than alcohol even when used in excess, but of course alcohol is a great source of income to the state. If the government could just see its way through the old prejudices and ignorance regarding cannabis, it could make lots of money through its legalization and regulation while at the same time reaping the many rewards of hemp’s industrial uses. I really do not know if hemp could ever run our cars or fertilize our crops, but it can certainly feed our cattle! There are several promising medical applications which the government and Big Pharm simply refuse to consider, except in California, that “prophet on the golden shore,” to borrow a line from a Dead song. The government is none too happy with California’s exploration of medicinal marijuana, but is becoming less and less able to control a growing popular movement.
Thinking about these things tends to make me a bit hot under the collar, so I just went outside and had a fill of my pipe. I am not smoking any cannabis-kind of wish I had some, but I don’t think I would be able to find any around here even if I tried. Anyway, even though I’m writing mainly about pot, pot isn’t exactly the best accompaniment to effective writing. I would just want to watch TV or go outside and stare at the night sky. The sky is gray and overcast tonight, so that would just leave me with TV. Truth be told, I wouldn’t even have that, because my dish is out and won’t be serviced until tomorrow afternoon. It’s just as well. When you turn on the TV, you are confronted by constant violence: movies, shows, the Iraq War; and in addition there is sex that makes even such a die-hard social liberal such as me blush. What is it about modern American society that condones such violence yet so disparages the lowly pothead (or moderate alcoholic) who just wants to escape from the madness for a little while? I am a tobacco smoker and am well aware of the health risks, but the habit is relaxing and we all have something we like to do to get away from the stress of everyday existence. For many Americans, that something is food. Do you know that the #1 prescribed prescription drug in America is Lipitor, for reduction of cholesterol? If we ate right (I am no model for this, though I am a little bit better than fast food all the time), there would be no need! Death by cigarette, death by Big Mac, it’s all the same in the end.
It seems like every few weeks, or even more often, we hear about another spree shooting or kinslaying, some lone nut who’s gone cracked and taken out some innocent people. The reasons are never quite clear, but it always seems to have something to do with the stress and strain of alienation-the person has lost all hope of ever fitting in or making any sense of (usually) his life, and takes out his frustrations on others. There is so much violent crime in America that our prisons are full to bursting. Part of the problem is that the war on drugs has filled them with nonviolent drug offenders. Murderers and rapists are being let out early just to create more space! If these minor vices like drug use and prostitution were legalized and regulated, we could use our prisons for the best possible purpose, and that purpose is to house the truly violent and most dangerous to society. If drugs were legalized, at least softer drugs such as cannabis and hallucinogins, there would be no violence associated with drugs. Prohibition creates a black market and the criminal element, just as prohibition of alcohol led to the rise of gangsters such as Al Capone. We should have learned from the failed experiment of the prohibition of alcohol by now. It’s been almost ninety years!
There are certainly some drugs the use of which I would never condone or advocate. Meth is an epidemic in the heartland of America which is outstripping the heroin and crack epidemics of the ‘70s and ‘80s. I really don’t know what to do about drugs like that. I find it difficult to decide in my own mind whether some strong regulation would be better, in which addicts were strictly monitored to mitigate the damage they might potentially do to themselves, their families, or society, or if on the other hand these harder drugs should remain criminalized. One thing is certain, and that is that all these drugs will never go away despite the efforts of law enforcement, and will be with us forever. My heart tells me that mitigation will eventually prove a better alternative to criminalization. Remembering Ayn Rand’s moral code, the initiation of force is never justified. Drug users are looking for something, perhaps erroneously, that they do not feel they can obtain from normal existence, or they are using the drug to escape from normal existence. The image of an individual getting high and going out and killing a bunch of people is largely fictitious. There will always be alcoholics beating their wives, and drug deals gone wrong, but most of our early 21st century spree killers are on no other drugs than the anti-psychotics prescribed by their doctors-and some have stopped taking them. Though I would not be the one to disparage the wonders of modern medicine, I think these people would have benefited much more from human contact, from a greater understanding of their problems, and from a better awareness on the part of the psychological profession as to those people whose problems are so overwhelming that the potential danger to society outweighs the ideal of the freedom of the individual.
Drugs have never before been regulated to the extent that they are in modern society. We have all heard of the patent medicine and snake oil days, those times in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in which opium tincture was given to infants to make them stop crying, when you could buy cocaine in any drug store over the counter, and when people guzzled laudanum for pain or pleasure. In the libertine eighteenth century, drug use was common as well, though we don’t hear about it so much in the historical records. It was kept secret-opium dens were given that name for a reason. The English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge is said to have written his great poem Kubla Khan in 1797 under the influence of opium (perhaps a laudanum-like tincture), and there are records of him having received shipments of Indian hemp from a friend in British India. Thomas De Quincy became addicted to opium medications in 1802-03, and wrote of the dreams and nightmares of opium addiction in his 1821 work Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Though the examples of Coleridge and De Quincy come from the turn of the nineteenth from the eighteenth century, we may safely assume that these experiences were not uncommon in the period of the eighteenth century in general. Alcohol and tobacco were of course endemic to the time as well.
The nineteenth century was much the same. Opium medications were commonplace, and so were infusions of hemp, as I have already mentioned. I have a feeling there were a few pot smokers in those days as well, but have not been able to verify this in my research. Opium is what one always seems to be able to document, whether it be in 18th or 19th century England or in the American wild west. There were of course lots of Chinese in the old west, and lots of opium dens as well. Most frontiersmen contented themselves with the saloon, but the dens were there in the larger cities, and of course one could just go to the doctor or local snake oil dealer for a tincture. In any century, whether it be our own, the eighteenth, nineteenth, or twentieth drugs are always there despite any effort to control them; and it is up to the individual to decide for himself if the path of drug use is to be taken.
I would like to touch briefly on the issue of prostitution and sex vice. We in the early twenty-first century like to think of ourselves as sexually liberated. Just turn on the TV or look at any current blockbuster movie-sex is ubiquitous. I do not approve of prostitution, but feel that it should be tolerated. Is this a contradiction? I do not feel that it is, because just as in the case of drugs, mitigation is better than criminalization when it comes to prostitution. True, women selling themselves for sex is ugly and unseemly, but keep in mind that this sex act is still consentual and harmless to the rest of society. The Victorians never tried too hard to regulate prostitution, as long as it was kept out of the sight of “decent society.” One could find a brothel for any kind of sex one wanted in jolly old Victorian England, and even homosexuality was tolerated until it became too public, as in the case of poor Oscar Wilde. I can remember reading one account of the brothel scene, this time I believe in mid-eighteenth century London, in which a customer said to the madam “none of that, thank you. Just some straight f______ for me!.” Brothels and houses of ill repute were common in America during those years as well. Today we have street prostitution and massage parlors, and I feel that both these institutions should be legalized yet strongly regulated. Prostitution can never be eradicated, so we should rather concentrate on mitigation once again, to ensure that the most harmful effects such as venereal disease and the virtual slavery we sometimes see are kept to a minimum.
Pornography in the Victorian age was mainly sent through the mail in photographs-no glossy centerfolds such as we have today. The practice was commonplace in England and in America, despite the efforts of Anthony Comstock-special agent to the U.S. Post Office, and secretary of the New York Society for the Supression of Vice. He fearlessly guarded the United States Mail from the insidious infiltrations of the pornographers and abortionists (abortion pills and powders were often sent through the mail), and so protected good Americans from this unchristian evil. Today one can not safely send drugs through the mail, but the Post Office really doesn’t care about racy images any more. In the nineteenth century both in America and in England, things were much different.
In Victorian times they even tried to prohibit masturbation. There are patents, diagrams, and models of devices to be placed over adolescent boys’ penises to prevent them from masturbating. Young boys’ hands were even sometimes tied to the bedposts for the same reason. There was a general feeling in the nineteenth century that masturbation could lead to madness, or at the very least an unhealthy malaise. The composer Richard Wagner and his wife once noted that their friend, philosopher Friedrich Nietschie, was “suffering from the ill-effects of masturbation.” Later, on the advice of his physician, Nietschie had sex a couple of times in Italy, albeit with prostitutes. It is likely that this is how he contracted the syphylis that later killed him, after it left him talking to his horse and asking his sister “I wrote many good books one day, didn’t I?” Perhaps he should have stuck with masturbation.
Gambling also comes under the heading of vice, and it has existed in many forms throughout the centuries. Nowadays, though one may still find illegal gambling in all its forms, the authorities have relegated gaming activities to a few legal venues such as Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and Native American casinos. These are largely corporate controlled now, with none of the mob control found in the past. Everything is clean, regulated, and fair, though as always the odds are stacked in the house’s favor. Additionally, there are numerous state lotteries, in which any citizen may purchase for a few dollars a chance at millions. These lotteries add greatly to state revenues and often help the common good by financing schools and social programs. As in the case of drugs and prostitution, there is nothing new under the sun. Gambling has been with us from the dawn of civilization. There is a certain attraction to be found in getting something for nothing. True, it is possible that by gambling one may lose everything, but at least the Vegas casinos don’t break your legs anymore when you go into debt! I suppose you would have to either pay them eventually or declare bankruptcy, but I wouldn’t know. I gambled one time in my life on a cruise ship by means of the slot machines, and I broke even.
Isn’t capitalism itself somewhat of a gamble? We have our stock market, commodities trading, and “flipping” in the housing market. You go to college, choose a major, and go out into society to sell yourself and your talents, but there is always something of the wager to this, something that is uncertain. I chose a major that is more idealistic-I can write a string quartet, but have only a layman’s idea of how markets work. I have never been quite comfortable with commerce and “filthy lucre.” Real estate manipulations helped lead to the great depression, and could very well lead to another one even greater. The population now is so much more numerous than then, and we are much more dependent on oil. Oil, as I have hinted at before, may be the greatest gamble of all. Oil is the greatest addiction, the most prevalent vice of modern society. We are addicted to it, and the weaning may cost the lives of half the world’s population. We have built up our population through cheap hydrocarbon energy, but it is a devil’s bargain. There are great gains in the beginning of the game, but the game is not over.
Compared to the global problem of peak population and peak oil, those little vices of sex and drugs seem pretty insignificant. I think I will go smoke another pipe here. It is getting late, and I need something to relax me after contemplating these great matters. I worry a lot about the world, but not so much for myself. I would of course prefer not to die in any great resource war or apocalypse, but the possibility of hundreds of millions dying puts for me my own life in perspective. Tobacco is my solace in these dire times, and though it might shorten my life, it might be better than to see the end. What might it be like, I often wonder, when one can no longer drive down the road to the store, when every living tree is being cut down for fuel and people are perhaps eating their family pets and even each other? I can only hope that the end is not as near as I fear it is, and that we may find new sources of energy before it is too late.
What would higher or universal powers think, if they were to look upon our world today? They would say that we cannot see the forest for the trees. We concern ourselves with these little matters of vice, while major sins run rampant. We are engaged in constant tribal warfare over resources, but we fail to see that these resources concern the entire global community. Oh, you clever monkeys with delusions of grandeur! Can you not see that your fate is in your own hands? For we do not come here to rescue you from yourselves, but merely to observe, and only at the last trump will we give our judgments. All time is one, but you may still have a say in your final outcome. There is still time to change, to take hold of what is really important and to let go of the trivial. We do not care about these small matters of vice, but rather the larger issues of the fate of your world as a whole, and the survival of Earth-humans as a species. Many of you have had dreams and premonitions, visions of the earth in the last days. We say to you that Earth will not be destroyed, but you as a people might find yourselves nearly destroyed, cut in half, and your industrial society ended. Many planets have cast their lot with hydrocarbon energy, but this has not turned out so well for them. It would be better to keep the agrarian model of your forefathers. We can help to show you better ways, if we are allowed by Yahweh to interfere.
Well, I suppose it might go something like that, pardon the sci-fi. Any galactic civilization more advanced than ours would certainly have given up on hydrocarbon or fossil fuel energy-there is only so much of it to use, and when it is gone there is nothing left to burn save the forests and ourselves. What of the agrarian model? In a post-oil age this might seem attractive, but there is one caveat. The agrarian world of the eighteenth century was possible mainly due to the lesser population of the time. We would have problems if we tried to suddenly transition our economy from an oil based industrial model to an agrarian one. Food production is tied to oil by way of fertilizers and transportation. We will not be able to feed the large population of the 21st century without the easy energy of oil.
Oil has helped us to achieve a before now unheard of prosperity in the industrialized world, but often at the expence of those living in less developed nations. America, with four percent of the world’s population, consumes twenty percent of the world’s resources! Our society’s whole raison de etre, in fact, seems to be the acquisition of material wealth. This cannot go on forever, since resources are limited. When we fall, the fall may be hard. Now, the economy is showing signs of strain (though the oil companies continue to enjoy record profits), and many Americans are having trouble keeping up with the rising costs of energy, health care, housing and food. The stresses can be unbearable, and there seems to be an anger and despair starting to grow in society which, if not kept in check, could lead I fear to more of these random acts of violence that seem to be happening so frequently and in so many different locations throughout the country. If there were to be a major economic downturn on the order of the great depression, perhaps caused by an oil shortage and its effect on resources in general, the resulting social unrest could be devastating, especially given today’s much larger population.
Money isn’t everything, and this is a time in which we might benefit from a little austerity. Prosperity can be nice, to be sure, but if our resourse consumption continues to rise unchecked, the main issue a few years down the road may be survival itself. It’s a good time to “stop and smell the roses,” to take pleasure in simple things. That doesn’t have to mean vices like sex and drugs, though for me at least there is a certain attraction to the hippie ideal of a simpler, less wealth-oriented life with free love (and dope) for all. Not everyone will agree, but to me, these seem to be less harmful vices than corporate greed, resourse wars, and environmental catastrophe.
As I look out the window at the quiet, small-town street with its neat rows of houses on either side in well-kept lawns teeming with bushes and trees, I think of how lucky we all are to live in a country like this one, where even such a viceful little rat like myself can find himself a part of this suburban American dream. Not everyone is so blessed. I plan on enjoying myself while I can. I got a new shipment of pipe tobacco in the mail, some new blends I haven’t tried out before. One has a goodly amount of Latakia mixed in. It is very smoky and spicy, and tends to burn my nostrils, though it is more mellow in the mouth. Latakia is produced in Cyprus and northern Syria, and is fire cured over controlled fires of aromatic woods, fragrant herbs, and camel dung. Yes, camel dung. I never said smoking wasn’t a shitty habit! The story goes that an excess crop of tobacco was stored in some grower’s rafters one year, and the locals were accustomed to using dried camel dung for heating and cooking in the winter when wood ran short. The uniquely flavored tobacco was tried in the spring, and a new taste sensation was born. Reminds me of those rare coffee beans that are collected after being eaten and partially digested by a wild civit cat. The coffee brewed from them is said to be of excellent quality, and my brother tells me it is beginning to be marketed on the internet and that he plans to give it a try.
So here I will sit, and await the apocalypse, smoking my pipe and writing my book. I do not get around to as many destinations in the vice matrix as I used to, but still need my coffee in the morning to wake me up, my tobacco to perk me up, and occasionally some beer at night to relax me and ease the stresses of the day. I’ve always been this way, and though I have gotten away from the heavier alcohol and cannabis use of my past, both are still a temptation. I would particularly like for Tyler and I to have a housewarming some time soon, and play some music accompanied by some India Pale Ale or perhaps some single malt Scotch. I haven’t had a good Scotch in a while, partly because the memory of that whiskey drunk last fall in which I fell into the shower and hurt my spine is still too painful a memory, and also because single malt is pretty expensive. Decent beer is pricey enough, and I don’t like these watered-down American concoctions with the color of straw (or urine) and no body or character whatsoever. It always seems to give me more of a hangover as well, and that is not good, especially since I have enough laziness already without the added burden of feeling sick and draggy in the morning. Of the seven deadly sins, sloth is the only one I am particularly vulnerable to, and this is looking to be a busy spring. There will be grass to cut, a garden to tend, squirrels to feed, and hopefully a new job to keep me busy during the day.
I’ve been unemployed for a year, and though this has given me some much needed time for study and reflection, and the opportunity to exercise my creativity, I kind of miss the grind. A regular job keeps me away from those entangling vices at least for the daytime hours, and gives me more of a feeling that I have earned the right to indulge after a long day’s work. The vice matrix is no place to spend all one’s time, but more of a place to visit from time to time. Otherwise, it tends to snare you in the confusion of its various ways, and you become lost in those mazes of back alleys with their enticing little pleasures, and never want to leave.
Odi profanum vulgus et arceo:
Favete linguis. Carmina non prius
Audita Musarum sacerdos
Virginibus puerisque canto.
Horace, Odes 3.1