Sunday, September 29, 2013

Selfies

The slang of social media has mostly escaped me, but I did run across the term 'selfie" recently and thought it a wonderful expression of the anxiety of the age. Smart phones have made it child's play to take your own picture (a button will reverse the camera lens so you don't even have to contort) and I imagine selfie-ness is exploding. I suppose to most people it's an expression of individuality, but for this somewhat crabby older person it recalls, among other things, the time I spent in Asia watching the portraiture of sameness: all the hikers, for example, dressed the same and posing for the same picture at the top of the mountain, or the family with a monk on the grounds of the Buddhist temple, or all the pretty girls smothered in cherry blossoms and gazing eternally upwards. In the West the astounding technology is producing a similar maddening sameness. We used to say "he's buried in the pages of a book" but now "he's addicted to the glow of a screen." Just ride the subway or walk downtown streets to see the mass appeal of individuality.

Obsession on our own faces is nothing new. But this seemingly desperate need to make them not only beautiful to mass standards, but also to promulgate them as widely as possible seems to me to betray a deep anxiety. It's an anxiety that defines parts of America, and that is fear of the Other. If we record every detail of our lives on Twitter, and cavil ceaselessly on the peccadilloes of our friends on Facebook, and post our faces on Instagram in every conceivable light and mood and grimace and smile, then we won't fear so much the unknown. By sheer repetition life will become safe, and the Other - the black, the violent, the liberal, the Muslim, the gay - will be rendered irrelevant, and invisible, and if they do arrive, they will be disarmed by the screen. The tools that promise us the world drive us behind walls. If we tweet hard enough, the whole world will become like us. The self bears investigation only in pictures, seldom in conversation, or a walk on the shore, or the pages of a book.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

"Wildlife"

One of the strange things about life in New England these days is that our neighborhood in suburban Boston has more wildlife than our neighborhood in semi-rural Maine.

Now the wildlife in Massachusetts shows a substantial variety of wildness. At the bottom of the scale, more or less pets, are the mice and chipmunks that inhabit our house. Also, squirrels, which were discovered this week nesting somewhere in the second-story walls and which have now been lured into traps (one mother, five babies) and escorted into A Better Place. (Apparently, they gained access by climbing three stories up a metal drainpipe, according to our neighbor, then chewing out a board.) Somewhat higher up the wildness scale are birds, lots and lots of birds, which are becoming slowly pet-ified by the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of feeders in our town. Dramatically, bird species include turkeys, a flock of which sauntered out of our backyard in the late afternoon, pecked around under the big oak for bits of broken acorns dropped by squirrels or wind, and wandered down the street, appearing not just once, but three days running, and not just a few turkeys, but twelve. Deer have been seen in the neighborhood (but not for a while now). At the top of the scale a red-tailed hawk vies with a coyote for prominence. I give the edge to the coyote; the hawk seems to have adopted this area, while the coyote roams widely, despised and lonely and inhuman.

In Maine, we have maybe one mouse, a couple of chipmunks, and one little red squirrel, and none of them seen very often. There's usually a family of deer, relatively tame. There are quite a few birds, of course (just not the quantity), notably a glorious little flock of goldfinches, the occasional hummingbird, an impertinent crowd of crows, and show-off seagulls, all of which appreciate humans' feeders and lawns and flower beds and trash, and - now we get into the species that really don't give a hoot about us - a family of ducks, a loon trying to decide on leaving or staying for the winter, blue herons every once in a while, and more and more frequently, at the top of the scale, fly-bying bald eagles, who seem truly disdainful. The foxes too are still quite wild, and would do just as well without us as with us.

One can predict, however, that some day foxes will beg for scraps, Walmart will sell eagle feeders, the bears and lynx and moose will be driven into Canada, the truly wild animals of Africa will be extirpated, and all the rest of our animal species will live in a peaceable kingdom, sharing shelters and food and diseases in the new world we are making but don't really want.

We won't mention insects.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

What a difference a deer makes

Here are the phlox in the garden near the house.



Here are the phlox in the garden down by the water.



The difference is that the deer around here nip buds all summer long in the one garden, and leave the other completely alone. I can only assume that the manufactured wood, or human smells, or fear of glass keeps them away from the house.

The deer wars have been going on for a long time. I was reading today that deer were nearly wiped out in New England in the early 19th century, from indiscriminate hunting and from clearing the forests. With reforestation (we're almost back to colonial coverage) and regulations on hunting, the deer came back, and have become especially fond of the goodies that our gardens provide. Every since we got civilized in the later 19th century, people have been complaining at this clear violation of the suburban imperative. Me, I'm ecstatic that such wild and graceful and beautiful animals are so willing to share their space with us, and ask so little in return. When I see a mother and yearling standing stock-still in in a yard near the edge of woods, as we exchange 5 minutes' worth of stares, when I finally move on, when a second yearling crosses the road behind me and joins its family waiting so bravely for the human to leave, when all three bound elegantly into the safety of the trees, how can any dark mood not lift away, how can one not rejoice at the difference a deer makes?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

In tatters

Driving up to Maine on the Turnpike yesterday morning, I noticed in my rear-view mirror that a pickup truck was overtaking me in the left lane. This is not news: since I started driving at the speed limit a couple of years ago, almost everybody overtakes me. Indeed, it's news when I overtake someone. The truck itself was news, however. Big and completely black, including the windows, it was hiked up on four double-sets of large tires and looked like it wanted to go a lot faster than 75. I strained to see the words plastered across the top of the windshield like a beetle-brow, but reading backwards in the mirror is one of the skills I've lost to advancing age and I had to wait until the truck was past before the identical phrase become visible on the back bumper: Maine Turbo Diesels. Indeed.

But the words painted on the side, conveniently at eye-level as I was passed, were the interesting ones.

"My truck cancels out your hybrid."

Since I don't drive a hybrid, I didn't take this personally. I suppose I should have, since my little Civic was getting 50.4 miles per gallon so far on the trip, according to the calculations of Average Fuel on the dashboard, but clearly the statement bore no relation to logic, and was merely a typical aggressive strike of the abstract kind, assuming the fellow inside was referring to gas mileage in the first place. Apparently, it's somehow American to burn up as much gas as possible.

(The feeling of the great widening divide in this society was reinforced later by the evening news; this summer's huge car sales are being driven by sub-compacts and large pick-ups.)

I wasn't able to see the fellow inside (darkened windows, great height) to confirm any other stereotypes, although it was somehow satisfying when he left the Turnpike at the Old Orchard Beach exit (maybe there's a honky-tonk bar there whose bouncer throws you out if you get more than 10 mpg.). He's probably a good family man, life of the party, etc. He's certainly a patriot, for exactly in the middle of the bed of his truck he had planted a big American flog, which was slowly being tattered to death by the keening wind.