Odd Man Out

The Author at Age 4
The Author at Age 4

I was, and am, an odd duck. One manifestation of this is that I withdraw from things other people do. I hated sports. I can vividly recall an incident from the sixth grade, probably reconstructed from several such incidents, when despite my being placed in the relatively safe position of right field, some jerk swung late and the ball headed straight for me. The damn thing was big and hard and moving fast, and humans evolved to get out of the way of such things, which I did. Groans, “Tully’s done it again,” that sort of thing. Luckily, the rare hit in my direction usually dropped short and rolled (if I stood far enough out), so that I could, with luck, pick it up and throw it to the wrong base.

Music was important to me in my teens, but not the music everyone else listened to. I went to the library and picked out 78 records that I had not heard, discovering Bartok and Bantock and especially Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps which I listened to over and over with an equally maladjusted friend, letting my imagination run wild through the mists of prehistoric time. My high school peers were listening to rock and roll, the newest thing in the 1950’s, and to me they were illiterate unwashed hoodlums who spent their time in car shop chopping and channeling old Fords to make hot rods. I was far above such trash. I was an intellectual. I belonged to the model railroad club. It didn’t help that my much older brother, a talented jazz trumpeter, shared my disdain for rock and roll.

Berkeley was a shock. In my third semester, when I lived in an apartment instead of a dorm, my virginity was terminated by an older woman (Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto was on the radio). Later, she persuaded me to leave college and go with her to the Olympic Peninsula to pick ferns (such people were called “Bohemians” in those pre-hippie days). My mother had to take the train up from LA to keep me in school. I withdrew from the relationship when she called me at 2 AM during summer break, waking the whole household because in those days you had one phone in the middle of the house and everyone’s door was open because no one had air conditioning.

My first drunk was sensational. At some point I withdrew from being conscious. The first thing I remember was being led around the block by the girl assigned to bring me back to earth. For the next month I heard one tale after another, told with malicious hilarity, about how I had made passes at every female present. I quenched the terrifying prospect of being successful with women by getting sick thereafter whenever I had too much to drink.

But I digress. Over my life, I have withdrawn from one aspect of cultural life after another. As I describe elsewhere, I stepped outside religion at age 14 (I’m back, sort of). I enjoyed television for many years, until my wife and I decided we just didn’t have the time or the patience to pick the wheat from the mountains of chaff and gave up the habit when I was 60 or so. This makes it hard to converse and can cause embarrassment.

For example, as I write, Prince has just died. I had heard the name, and an extravagant fuss was made over his passing, so I went to You-Tube and watched “Cream,” from 1991. It was the classiest pornography I have ever seen, even better than the cover of Cosmo. The guy was a genius, and I missed him entirely. Oh, well, I did tune into Michael Jackson and Led Zeppelin and The Wall, thanks to the kids. A noted psychoanalyst friend and his wife introduced me to the Sergeant Pepper album and I never looked back. I introduced her to Bartok. How could she not have known about Bartok?

Having bowed out of a belief system shared by most Americans, along with popular culture, I was on a roll. Over the years, I and others have observed that our infrastructure is not being maintained. I was all in favor of a crash program to repair infrastructure until I read an article by a civil engineer pointing out that our infrastructure is a Ponzi scheme. Here’s how it works.

Americans like to live in the country, but they have to work in the city. Americans do not like to pay taxes or mortgage payments. Solution: divide up the cheap farmland into little parcels, connect them with roads and bridges, and add sewer, water, electricity, telephone, cable, gas, street lights and other infrastructure. Build inexpensive houses out of wood, which is OK because they aren’t attached to each other, so you can burn up your home without burning up your your neighbors’ homes.

Now most infrastructure has a life span of 60 to 100 years, so you need to salt away some property taxes in a trust fund to repair the infrastructure and replace it when it wears out. This is an unpopular idea. Bernie Madoff to the rescue! Build more infrastructure so you get more taxes, and use the new taxes to fix the old infrastructure. This works splendidly until the infrastructure needs to be replaced.

So our suburban approach to living doesn’t work. I spent many years designing nice solar houses for people living in suburbs, doing research on building houses, and writing and teaching about houses. Now I had to admit that this was all a mistake and that I must in good conscience withdraw from this wicked practice. I love designing houses and must admit to cheating from time to time. Inconveniently, we live in a suburban house.

This led me to the notion that civilization is a Ponzi scheme. Think about it: we invent a clever way to do things, and then we have to invent another clever thing to deal with the unexpected consequences of the first clever thing. Take mills for instance. We invented machines to do the more work with fewer workers, but mill-owners exploited the workers, so we needed rules and bureaucracy to stop them. More bureaucracy means more taxes, and as I just mentioned Americans don’t like taxes (or rules for that matter). So we skimp on taxes and the infrastructure stops working.

Mill on the Mayenne, 2001
Mill on the Mayenne, 2001

Another example: whale oil is a lot better for making light than wood or wax, so we cut down a lot of trees to build whaling ships. Just as we were running out of whales, we discovered oil. This saved the whales for a while, but oil made shipping cheaper, so now the ships are threatening whales with their noise.

Well, if civilization is a Ponzi scheme, maybe it wasn’t such a great idea. I needed perspective to think about this, but withdrawing from civilization did not appeal to me. The next best thing was pretending to be a visiting alien, which given my history as an outsider wasn’t all that hard. A little observation convinced me that human nature was to blame.

First I had to decide whether human nature exists. This is controversial. John Locke back in the 17th Century decided that there wasn’t much to human nature because we were born with minds that are blank slates (except of course for those pesky instincts like sex) and we learn how to behave through experience.

On the other side of the net were people like Hobbes and Machiavelli, who thought humans have a nature and that it is intractably wicked (I’m not sure what they thought of themselves). The battle lines were drawn: it was nature versus nurture.

Today scientists generally agree that we have a human nature, but that how it gets expressed varies a lot due to our having big heads. We are born prematurely because a fully developed brain won’t fit through the birth canal, so the long trek from conception to maturity leaves ample time for our parents, peers and culture to shape how our human nature is expressed.

Some psychologists and other scientists believe that we can overcome the parts of human nature that we don’t like by using conscious reasoning. Others believe that for all practical purposes, we can’t and don’t. I subscribe to the latter school.

Of course, as my son pointed out, this raises the question of why I am so sure about which school I belong to, because I must have used conscious reasoning to arrive at my decision. That’s why I inserted that little “for all practical purposes” qualifier. I believe we really can reason consciously, it’s just not something one normally does. But I may be wrong about this – I think.

Some people, especially scientists, believe that science is how you find out what’s actually going on in the world because it deals with facts you can demonstrate by experiment. If you use science, you can get to the moon, although we don’t normally do this either. Whereas if you use prayer or magic or certain chemicals, you may THINK you went to the moon, but you didn’t actually go there, according to scientists and probably most of your friends. (Some people believe the moon trips by astronauts were an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the government to force Colgate to use fluoride in their toothpaste – it worked!)

All this inspired me to look further, and I found a scientist who cleared things up for me. He pointed out that we are the kind of animal that doesn’t have an “off” switch for acquiring things. This seems about right, based on how much stuff my wife and I have in our basement and attic. During 50 years of marriage one tends to accumulate stuff.

For example, we have 3 or 4 nifty U-shaped vegetable peelers. You really only need one. We found that they worked as well as the guy who peeled mountains of vegetables at the Boston Flower Show said they did. They get dull after a while, so we bought new ones, but couldn’t part with the old ones. We are thinking of moving, so stuff is on my mind.

I believe that I have to withdraw from the human race to think about all this. This is definitely a challenge, but I am working on it. Luckily, I have a head start.