A Fistful of Snow

The first snow came early this year.   It may presage a long and difficult winter.  Usually, first snow occurs up in the hills, with rain in the lower lying elevations and river valleys, but not so this year.  Snow from top to bottom, with mild accumulations of only a quarter inch in the river valleys, where it sticks to the grass and the cars but not to the pavement.  Still, it’s only October 13, a bit early to be brushing the snow off your shoulders.  It has certainly thrown a monkey wrench into the dreams of busload after busload of the leaf-peepers.  They have been coming in droves for the past week or so as Columbus Day weekend is the traditional high point for the foliage season.  With the nearly two weeks of rain that we experienced since October began and now the snow, most of the foliage is on the ground.

On a completely unrelated note, I noticed that today’s Guardian is running a nice selection of stills from the sets of film director Sergio Leone’s works.  Leone, who never rose to a position of respect with American viewers, who treated his works as lower-grade entertainment known as ‘spaghetti westerns,’ is nevertheless one of the more spiritual directors to have graced our screens.

Right from his first work, “A Fistful of Dollars,” (a reworking of Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo,” with a few scenes, in homage, stolen shot for shot), it was clear to this discerning viewer that behind the violence and the stylization was a deeply Christian ethic at work.  Sequences such as Joe’s (The Man With No Name played by Clint Eastwood) meeting with the Innkeeper Silvanito clearly refer to the symbolic.  From the beginning of the sequence, where Eastwood is hanging from a signpost, symbolizing the crucifixion, to the climb to the balcony, where things may be seen from a higher perspective, the juxtaposition of art and faith is deeply entwined.  The entire film, right from the opening shot of a Church bell, which was most likely a reference to Bunuel, has a symbolic layer to it.  This spiritualization is at the root of Leone’s moral ambiguity, and, ultimately, contributed deeply to the long lasting popular success of his works.  If I get to a more stable place in my life, I’ll take some time and do an analysis of this film in which I’ll go into more detail.

The Ubiquitous Cell Phone

They say that art imitates life and life imitates art.  It is sometimes in such an understanding that we must look for the origins of what people perceive that they need.  In this case, the cell phone.  It is near impossible to walk down a sidewalk, drive down a street, or sit in a public place without being subjected to someone nearby blathering away on one of these devices.  They have been embraced by the public in such an enthusiastic way that it hearkens back to the growth of the television industry half a century ago.  Where has the impetus for such a perceived need come from?  What do people envision when they think they must have one of these devices?

I think it goes back to Star Trek.

Star Trek, for the generation that saw it during its first run in the 60’s, was one of the few iconic television shows that bridged the gap between the counter-culture and society in general.  Beloved by fans of many diverse backgrounds, it brought Gene Roddenberry’s vision of anti-war sentiments to American viewers during the divisive period of the Vietnam War.  Although his philosophical messages were often hammered into the head of the viewer without much subtlety, it was always done with a touch of humor.  And behind it all was the belief that science, even weapons science, could be used to support ‘good,’ and that men of noble spirit could thwart the ‘evil’ science of the warmongers. This was still believed in the altruism of the times, although cynicism about the military channeling of science was growing rapidly in America.  The renunciation of violence as a means to an end was a prevalent plot device on many episodes.  The power of that original message was so strong that it resonated through several spin-off television series and several more movies continuing up to the present day 43 years later.

“Beam me up, Scotty,”  and similar variations of that message are found in almost every episode.  And although instantaneous transportation has yet to be realized, the ability to instantly communicate with people by a small hand-held device has become a commonplace occurrence.  This was something that was deemed ‘cool’ back in the 60’s and that perception seems to be behind the wild embrasure of such technology.  We have certainly had adequate phone service for our entire lives, with phones in our homes, our places of business, out on the street, in commercial stores, etc.

So the wildly popular acceptance of the technology seems to have come from, not filling a basic need that was missing, but rather, a desire to have the latest ‘cool toy.’  Unlike the cost of a laptop personal computer, which provided new technological capabilities to the consumer, the costly monthly service plans of the mobile phone industry seem designed to have us paying much more for a basic service that we already possessed, except that it was not sufficiently ‘cool.’  This is why the industry is not limited to a handful of professionals carrying out urgent responsibilities where the matter of a few minutes can make a difference, such as firemen, ambulance crews, or policemen.  This is also why we are now surrounded by constant blather where once there was some semblance of peace and quiet in the public moments of our lives.  Have you ever been walking along, and heard someone behind you say “Hello,” only to turn and see that they were not talking to you at all, but had just started a cell phone conversation?  Such is what I mean by blather.

There are strong cultural connotations and effects which are beginning to come into being from this new technology.  Most notably, the concepts of personal space and privacy are rapidly changing and will produce ripple effects for many years to come.  Personal space is already dramatically different with cell phone technology.  Several people in a confined area (doctor’s office, elevator, bus stop) used to produce some form of interactive social situation.  One could be shy or outgoing or reserved or conversational and it would be noted; it would make an impact (to whatever effect) on those around oneself.

This is already no longer true.  If there are three people situated in a close space and two of them are talking on their cell phones and one is not, it creates a new dynamic.  Each of those on the cell phone takes little to no notice of those around them at all.  They are ‘plugged in’ to the person on the other end of the phone, and ignore those directly in front of them.  All the communication is directed away from their physical location and those who are there with them.  The person in this example who is not talking on the cell phone is also in a new dynamic.  They are subjected to the personal information of the other two individuals without having a voice of their own to contribute.  The societal implications of this are profound, with what is considered polite, what is considered appropriate, and what is considered private all undergoing a new definition.

These societal changes, with their new dynamics of social behavior and human interaction, will most likely serve to separate people.  The current bonding between mankind and technology is being created at the cost of the bonding between people, particularly at the social level.  It has been common for some time now to enter a coffee shop and see people engrossed in their laptop computer and paying no attention to those around them at all.  Now, with the acceptance of cell phone technology, people are able to ignore those around them at all times.

“Beam me up, Scotty!”

Peaks and Troughs

The principle peak is the Autumn foliage, which is resplendent now, or would be if the rain would stop for long enough to get more than a glimpse of the wondrous colors all around us.  It’s a bit earlier than usual, and the rain will make it a short passage to bare trees, but each year has its own nature and flavor to it.  The weather remains relatively pleasant as well, with temperatures still averaging in the mid-50’s, and the sun feels warm and good on the few occasions where it has shown itself.

The principle trough would be the worsening economic situation.  It’s at this time of year that the pundits and analysts attempt to figure out whether it will be a good or bad Christmas season, and the majority of reports that I have seen seem to imply that they haven’t got anything good to say, so they are saying the season will be ‘flat.’  Since this is optimism at its best, I think Christmas this year will not be good for the retailers, which means that fewer people will be added to the seasonal work force.

Behind the rather shallow news of the impact of the Holiday season, economic indicators seem to be worsening in a steady and consistent fashion.  Several bloggers are now moving from ‘things are bad’ to ‘OMG!, things are terrible.’  One such blogger, Ed Harrison, at Seekingalpha.com elucidates a lot of evidence that the recession is over, the depression has just begun.  The thrust of his article is that the debt situation has not eased, but has only been massaged to the point where it doesn’t look so bad at a national level, but the severe impact on the states continues.  It remains to be seen if California will be the first state to fiscally default on its obligations.

Another blogger, Jim Willie at GoldenJackass.com, sees systemic failure approaching.  He foresees “a failed US banking system (as in seizure) and a USTreasury Bond default (as in coerced restructure).”  Many of his themes have been echoed by bloggers around the net for a few years now, and his post is a concise summary of both the pathos of the situation as well as the personal anger that it can create in a thoughtful person.  The tone of his post is revealed in his characterization of the American people: The last people on the globe to comprehend the American condition of failure, corruption, and military aggression seem to be the Americans themselves, who live within the USDome of Perception. They suffer from perhaps the worst education levels in the industrialized world, coupled with a co-opted national news media network, clouded by the grandest drugstore medication in history.

I must confess to sharing many of these views: that America is rapidly approaching some form of economic collapse; that unemployment, underemployment, and ultimately, hunger, will grow at a rate currently deemed impossible for this nation; that the military will be utilized to maintain control of the populace as things begin to break down; and that prison camps will be utilized to control the ‘dissidents,’ who will finally find their voice too late and attempt to bring ‘American frontier justice’ to a failed country, which they themselves helped create.

Although these views seem severe, if not lunatic, it should be remembered that we have been, and still are, rapidly sliding down that slope of economic morass.  The bailouts, which were started by the Bush Administration, have continued and even grown under the Obama Administration.  These handouts to private industry from the American taxpayers are measured in the trillions of dollars.  We toss the term ‘trillion dollars’ around as if we really know what it meant, but we don’t.  To help understand, here is a simple pictorial representation of what a trillion dollars is, if we start with a single $100 bill.  This representation is a critical piece of knowledge which should be seen by every taxpayer.

And with every day that goes by, the number of those taxpayers is lessening.  Since December, 2007, the American economy has shed over seven million jobs.  That averages out to be a loss of 11,000 jobs a day for almost two years now.  Remember the Economic Stimulus legislation?  That was 3/4 of a trillion dollars spent to help the economy recover.  And yet where is this recovery?  Unemployment inexorably continues to rise, standing now at close to 10%.  The housing market continues to flounder, and all indicators point to bigger problems with the reset dates of Alt-A and option-ARM loans now coming into play.  The states, with no ability to print money like the national government and heavily impacted by the loss of revenues from property taxes and income taxes, are already drastically cutting back on all forms of social and educational services to the people, with a direct and dramatic impact on the poor.  And while the banking CEOs smile with their taxpayer-funded bonuses, more and more people, especially in California, the former land of opportunity, are living in their cars, or have become completely homeless.  They cannot find a job, with 6 applicants for every available position.  And a darkening future awaits not only them, but us all.

But, at least the Autumnal leaves are pretty.