Entropy and Me

This really isn’t just about me, but I couldn’t resist–entropy being, for those who need a reminder of their undergrad science classes, the state I’m heading toward, which we all are heading towards, some of us already there. I’m reading a book for my fall class called The Myth of Progress: Toward a Sustainable Future, by Tom Wessels, for, of all things, you might say, my course on Utopias, Dystopias, and Intentional Communities. But here’s the glue (ironically): entropy.

So a quick review. When the world began we were anti-entropic, a state wherein a complex system grows, taking in more energy than it releases; at maturity–where we’ve been for over 3 billion years on earth, a state of dynamic equilibrium, where there is balance between the taking in and releasing of energy. The third thing that happens is entropy–what we humans have been accelerating since the Industrial Revolution, a process that’s speeding up as we devour oil and shit out pollution.

The essence of entropy is a move from complex to simple or from concentration to diffusion, expending more energy than is taken in–think of a tree trunk, now in its entropic step toward re-integration into the earth. It began anti-entropic, that little acorn, taking in lots and lots of energy so that it grew to its adult magnificence. Equilibrium for a number of years, even those in which a drought or flood or fire occurred, and now that it is “dying,” it is no longer taking in energy but only giving it back–feeding all those creatures that are anti-entropic. Every complex system goes through this process, which we call the “life cycle.”

I think Wessels’ small book is good for my class because we are focusing on Ecological Crisis. Intentional communities are increasing in number–“commoners” another book I want to use calls them (Tom Bollier), those seeking a life where “the commons” are again respected and plentiful. The capitalist economy, both Bollier and Wessels say, is a complex system that is in its entropic stage. Another of those complex systems to join the ranks of the entropic is patriarchy. These are dying systems that cannot (if they ever could) accommodate for the realities of life–the individual, the community–because they assume a) control and hierarchy and b) unending progress. They (in various iterations) have gone hand in hand in our world for enough centuries to have caused enough damage, heartache, war, degradation to feel, well, a little bit delirious at the signs of their decay.

Or I would if it weren’t for another reality that comes with the entropic disintegration of a complex system like capitalism or patriarchy, and that’s backlash. Look around–can we say that the increase in hate radio, hate campaigns, hate wars, and hate policies is due to “advances” in technology alone? I agree that technology has sped up everything, accelerating the insecurity, uncertainty, anxiety that comes with massive social and environmental change. But I see the growing number of frantic acts as signs of desperation. A drowning white man (in a suit) grasping for anything as his little chunk of ice gets smaller and smaller in a big, salty, warming sea.

And here’s where we have to turn off our 24/7 news channels and instead skim the titles of a decent newspaper, dip in here and there to read (know what’s going on in the Ukraine, the Congo, LA), and then go in search of Something Else. Find the people and places where Something Else is going on. Where people who are able to make choices are. Option A Same Old Same Old–using hot water to wash their clothes, driving gas guzzlers, tossing plastic into the trash, feeling hostile. Option B Choose the anti-entropic action instead: cold water, bicycles/walking/fewer trips, recycling, practicing small acts of kindness. . . . I still feel hostile some days, but I have not surrendered to it.

So when we look at such dyspopic works as Atwood’s Oryx and Crake or McCarthy’s The Road, both of which I’m using in my class, we see the entropic direction of our current path taken to the logical conclusion, what’s next for Planet Earth and Creature Human. When we look at the impulse toward complexity (diversity) and away from simplicity (mono-agriculture) we see life-affirming action seeking equilibruium, stretching to pull us back from the dystopic brink.

Ruminations on Self-Doubt

Who doesn’t have it now and then (or in some sad cases, perpetually)? And what makes it so oppressive? If you could turn it off with a switch, would you?

It would be nice to think that once you reach a certain point on your path that you no longer have to deal with the dern thing. Like once you get the job you’ve been training for or the skill level you’ve been busting your ass to achieve. The trouble is that once you clear that high bar, someone raises it. Maybe you do. And maybe it’s just the nature of the mind: to churn on about what is real, what is meant . . . the “yikes” question, Who am I? What’s my purpose? That probably why we seek complacency, laziness–it’s just easier to shut down. Whatever.

Writers know it. Virginia Woolf describes it in her great Room of One’s Own, when she says, “Think of Tennyson; think–but I need hardly multiply the instances of the undeniable, if very, unfortunate, fact that it is the nature of the artist to mind excessively what is said about him [or her]. Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others” (56). Since she also devotes an entire chapter to Shakespeare’s sister, who died at the crossroads and is kin to other women known as “Anon,” we know also that there is plenty of wreckage of women. I think it was Mark Twain who said, “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you too, can become great.” Well, I don’t know about great in the Great sense, but there’s a lot to be said about building a network of friends that believe in you and affirm your worth. And alongside that is this reality: you have to build coalition and community with people who either don’t recognize the Wonders of You or who don’t know how to show it, some so wounded and closed off themselves that it’s like bouncing off a sealed sphere.

University professors know it. When we collect our student evaluations and 98% of the comments are positive, those 2% nasty are what keep us up at night. I remember one particularly unhappy class of Intro to Literature–no matter how great the story, how beautiful the image, how profound the phrase, they chattered among themselves and started packing their backpacks ten minutes before “the bell.” I vowed I’d teach anything (give me the most tiresome ENG 300) than watch what I loved dragged through the dirt by these heathen. My mother, not a university professor but teaching for a few years in her twenties at a high school, wrote, “This morning, of a sudden, I just knew I didn’t want anymore of small high schools and sassy kids. Next time I teach I hope it’ll be at least be a junior college and MUSIC.” If I had been born then, I might have leaned over and said, “Mom, don’t expect them to love music the way you do.” But I don’t want to discredit students categorically because that would be a horrible thing to do to all those who love learning and appreciate their teachers. It’s just those harsh comments that are hard to take. It might be different if they weren’t anonymous–are they empowered by invisibility to “tell the truth,” or does the anonymity become a screen that they can hide behind, sword in hand? Passive aggressive–sucking up for the grade, then snarling on the evaluation. I guess the same thing happens when faculty do evaluations of administrators–all that anger surges out. As a dean friend of mind said with a laugh, “Oh, you learn all kinds of things you didn’t know about yourself!”

Anyway, students know it, parents know it, I suppose even politicians know it. Self-doubt is as human as hunger. While looking around for easy answers (laziness–but I did know the Woolf quote, as I’m reverent when it comes to Virginia), I found this little exercise by Mahatma Ghandi:

Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest person whom you have seen, and ask yourself if the next step you contemplate is going to be of any use to that person. Will that person gain anything by it? Will it restore that person to a control over his or her own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to freedom for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melting away.

I’m not sure how effective that will be; if you can put yourself on a continuum with the “poorest and weakest person whom you have seen,” even for a few moments, the exercise will likely have you scolding yourself for your self-indulgence, spoiled self-centered, selfi-ness. But then you’ll probably go back to fretting, your mind scooting away from those uncomfortable for something more familiar.

Heroes know it. Martin Luther King, radiant light, also suffered from self-doubt, at least according to the Staff of the King Papers Project, who note that “Rather than exhibiting unwavering confidence in his power and wisdom, King was a leader full of self-doubts, keenly aware of his own limitations and human weaknesses.” Perhaps that’s the key or part of it–to be aware of one’s limitations and weaknesses, to struggle with doubt, but to refuse to be crippled by them–to hold in front of one some grand purpose that can silence those petty ego dramas.

The Dalai Lama says self-doubt is a form of laziness, muddling us in inaction. He also says–and it’s probably my favorite quotation–I usually find reason to say this in every class I teach–“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” A little self-forgiveness can go a long way to get us over self-doubt, don’t you think?

As Gloria Steinem, the great feminist leader said, “Measure yourself by the real, not the ideal.” which I revise to: “not the ideal or small-minded.”

Book Report: Dominion

The subtitle is “The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy,” and I’m considering using it for a spring semester course. It’s a devastating critique of our willful disregard of animal suffering. At worst, it’s about greed and arrogance so self-serving as to leave your mouth hanging open. It’s also about our lazy ignoring of what hear about the treatment of animals in factory farm, and the greed and hypocrisy of the people who argue that the animals like it. It’s also a defense of animal rights over time and of those who’ve fought corporate interests to ask for some human compassion for the needless suffering of animals at our service.

It’s not a likely book choice for me, written by Matthew Scully, a former speech writer for George Bush, a political conservative, a Christian, a right-to-lifer (I assume), with the nickname of the “most compassionate conservative.” But Scully is no sycophant to the republican agenda or easy quoter of Biblical passages to argue for another indefensible social policy. In fact, he is as hard on them as he is governmental and corporate suck-ups. On the other hand, it is a likely book for me because I am increasingly disgusted and horrified by the way animals are abused and tortured for our pleasure, with some weak rationale about our human superiority and “right” to their unequivocal surrender to whatever we demand of them.

Hence, the “dominion,” which we are Biblically admonished to hold over the creatures of the Earth. In his introduction wherein he talks about the Biblical roots of this dominion argument, he quotes a prayer from a 375AD bishop, who said, “We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to thee in song, has been a groan of travail” (13). Hmm, why does that sound so present-time, this “groan of travail”?

His response to the criticism that animals don’t deserve so much attention, that humans deserve our greater effort in eradicating the realities of oppression, is developed throughout the book, but this comment is characteristic: “One may view the creatures as morally incidental, as soulless beings for whom no bell ever tolls . . . . What one may not do under the guise of religious principle is deny that we have at least certain basic obligations of kindness, and that these obligations impose limits on our own conduct that today are simply not being observed” (18).

Here are some of the topics–

Safari Hunting. One can go to Africa, where one can bag big game, and at the Safari Club Int’l be recognized under a range of categories of achievement, such as the “African Big Five Grand Slam,” which means you’ve killed an elephant, a rhinoceros, a Cape buffalo, a lion, and a leopard, while the Bears of the World Grand Slam requires your killing an Alaska brown bear, a grizzly, a Eurasian Brown bear, and a polar bear. But one doesn’t have to travel that far. In the US and other countries, “farms” allow “hunters” to pay big sums to come in and shoot illegally gotten elephants, giraffe, zebras, lions, and tigers–or great animals bought when they had served their function from zoos and other “protectors” of animals, now too old to be worth gawking at behind bars. Scully sums it up, “Your typical trophy hunter today is hunting captive animals, and for all the skill and manhood it requires might as well do his stalking in a zoo” (63).

Whaling. Here we get into more international politics, with countries and native communities (with the urging and support of Japanese corporate interests, in one case) arguing everything from consumer demand to the protection of cultural uniqueness. Scully’s take: “Grasping their stricken prey by the flukes with a giant iron claw, swallowing them whole through a gaping mouth in the stern, stripping, boiling, and disassembling an entire whale in under an hour, these floating factories are among the ugliest creations of the human mind” (159).

Lest anyone feel to smug about what those people over there are doing to these beautiful creatures, Scully is quick to point out the hypocrisy of anyone on US soil suggesting that those other countries are morally corrupt in their desimating of vast populations of whale, while we retain our pristine purity. Buffalo, anyone? Passenger pigeons? Native Americans?

Do animals suffer? No? Okay, then no need to worry about any pain they might feel. Without the capacity to think about what suffering means, it’s not real pain. This is an example of the kind of contortions apologists for animal cruelty have gone to in order to show that it really doesn’t matter. One scientist (French) wrote that animals “‘eat without pleasure, they cry without sorry, they desire nothing, they fear nothing, they know nothing” (196). I like Scully’s use of irony throughout to point out hypocrisy, like this: “An animal to rate decent consideration in our hands doesn’t need to philosophize or orate or compose an Ode to Joy. If the creatures experience some humbler degree of thought or emotion, then that’s enough and the burden is thrown back upon us” (197).

Industrial Factory Farms. This is probably the most horrifying of all the atrocities detailed in this book, and worst of all is the pig farms. Read this and you’ll never buy Smithfield brand again–or any animal raised in such tortured chambers. We have heard about the horrors of the killing rooms, where the work is so soul-killing we have to go south of the border to find anyone to do the work. But we learn in “Deliver Me from My Necessities” that the torture begins with birth. In a tour through one factory barn, Scully is accompanied by an ironically named “Gay,” they pause in front of a cage labeled NPD 88-308. “‘Baby’ is lying there covered in feces and dried blood, yanking maniacally on chains that have torn her mouth raw, as foraging animals will do when caged and denied straw or other roughage to chew. She’s hurting herself with the chains, I remark. ‘Oh, that’s normal'” (266). And later: “Frenzied chewing on bars and chains, stereotypical ‘vacuum’ chewing on nothing at all, stereotypical rooting and nest building with imaginary straw. And ‘social defeat,’ lots of it, in every third or fourth stall some completely broken being you know is alive only because she blinks and stares up at you, . . . creatures beyond the power of pity to help or indifference to make more miserable” (268).

And what is this practice of “docking”? “Termed in the field a ‘short-term stressor,’ docking doesn’t remove the target [why target? because the animals are lined up so close to each other that the pig behind will inevitably chew on the tail in front]: The idea is to leave each tail more sensitive, so that the pain of a bite is sharper and the pigs will therefore try harder to avoid attack. Otherwise the pigs display what is known in both animal and human psychology as learned helplessness. They just give up, their tails get chewed and infected, the infection spreads, and they die an unauthorized death” (276).

Animals tested for science: everything from what we’ve learned already–that rabbits are held down so that toxic chemicals can be poured into their eyes so we can see what happens–to new developments in cloning that are crossing species in entirely creepy ways. Fortunately there’s some reprieve in this chapter, since Scully acknowledges the growing awareness that there are more effective ways to test the effects of this or that than on animals. Thanks to the efforts of some doctors and the animal rights activists who are so lambasted for being extremists, scientific experimenting has changed its emphasis on live animals to cells or computer diagnostics or even cadavers. Still, there’s the March of Dimes, which “each year devotes millions of dollars to experiments of the kind carried out by a team of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. . . . [which means] taking a group of kittens, sewing shut the eyelids of half of them while rearing the others for one year in total darkness, and then killing them all to examine the effects of this experience on their brains” (379). And March of Dimes has also “funded experiments administering massive doses of cocaine, nicotine and alcohol to animals, as if mankind has not himself [sic] provided sufficient data on the harmful effects of these substances” (379).

The last chapter is “Justice and Mercy” and is a collection of recommendations–largely legal and policy ones that often have no teeth. In addition we need to stop taking on faith “that if Science says research and testing are necessary, then it is not for us to question, and those who presume to do so must be radicals, misfits, and sure enough, as he [Cal Thomas] notes in the same column, ‘vegetarians,’ too” (378). Near the end, he provides a bulleted list of things the Humane Farming Act should do, and concludes with an homage to the people who make good what other people have attempted to ruin, “leaving behind them a trail of trouble and hurt” (393). There are sanctuaries increasingly given over to rescuing the “‘downed’ animals, the injured or sick who would just be tossed aside anyway” (396). What are they doing? “Lambs and calves forage, play, or lie together on straw in scenes recalling the lines from Oliver Goldsmith: ‘No flocks that range the valley free / To slaughter we condemn / Taught by power that pities us / We learn to pity them.'”

Why I am not a guy

Lately, maybe over the past two or three years, the use of “guys” to refer to any group of people, no matter how gender-mixed, has become so ubiquitous, that there is virtually no escape.

1. My granddaughter calls us over to look at a caterpillar, “Guys, guys, look here. Guys!”
2. An older person chuckles benignly at a couple of colleagues, who are being irreverent, “You guys . . . “
3. The young feminists refer to each other as guys.
4. The dean sends an email when a group of 3 women and 1 man have received a grant, “You guys have done a great job.”

So, what’s a tired feminist who cut her teeth on the first women’s history course at BGSU, back in 1973, to do?

I can, in the interests of education and my own refusal to be silenced, something we are supposed to have learned not to allow (though it will not help my popularity), point out the problem of language to them. My 8-year-old Omni will try to correct, even if changing her words stops the flow of enthusiasm. The older person might respond with a little more edge and say, would you prefer “ladies”? Noo! Please not that! Are these my choices, then, to be a lady or a guy?

I reject both.

The young feminists will likely say, “It’s just a colloquialism,” “We’re reclaiming the word for ourselves,” or “‘gals’ doesn’t have the right tone, and calling each other ‘women’ just sounds presumptuous.”

The dean, depending on which one, will probably ignore the correction, chalking it up to “those politically correct feminists” who think changing a word here or there will actually change the way we think. The nicer ones will say, “thanks, good catch, I’ll do better,” and then then next time we might be “ladies and gentlemen” or “colleagues,” which I prefer, as it offers up the rather pleasant suggestion that we’re in this together, all at the same table.

If you go to google and type in “guys” and then search images, you will find a couple hundred pictures of muscle-rich young men. If you try “guys and gals,” you’ll find a lot of images of butts, some signage for hairdressers, some bands, and a motley crew of young folks with tie-dyed hair and tattoos. But perhaps we should not trust what google has to say.

What’s bothersome with our use of these male-identified words, at least for me, is that packing them around as if they’re not gendered ignores the history of words that were used and still are used to devalue women and keep them in their place. “Ladies” might passably refer to a bridge club of silver-haired matriarchs sitting around someone’s dining room table on a Thursday night (probably drinking tea, though perhaps something stronger, during the last hand). Historically, “ladies” has been supposed to be the female equivalent of “gentlemen,” though not really, in practice, given the depth of our ingrained sexism. For instance, a “gentleman’s agreement” is one built on trust and suggests a transaction of some sort, with some level of economic exchange, whereas a “ladies’ agreement” sounds like a secret code for letting each other know when a bit of lettuce is caught between one’s teeth.

“Ladies of the night” is a polite way of referring to prostitutes, and when a coach wants to get his all-male team revved up, he will likely say, “Come on, ladies, get out there, and give me 50.” Men calling other men girls or women (by any name) is another way of professing their social location as above women’s–it’s one of the best insults, second only to calling each other fags, perhaps (which is, of course, another way of degrading their “man”hood). When women call women men (or guys), it’s more like a compliment. “Way to go, dude!”

But back to “guys,” and why I cringe every time I’m called one or witness a group of strong women calling themselves “guys.” Alice Walker, in her collection of ruminations We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For, comments on the increased use of “guys” for anyone, which I found gratifying, since if Walker doesn’t like it, my students might actually listen to me if I “correct” them while quoting her. Still, she doesn’t delve into it all that much. I think of “guys” as much like “man” to refer to all people. As Susan B. Anthony, in her speech after being arrested for trying to vote, argued about this business of language:

It is urged that the use of the masculine pronouns he, his and him in all the constitutions and laws, is proof that only men were meant to be included in their provisions. If you insist on this version of the letter of the law, we shall insist that you be consistent and accept the other horn of the dilemma, which would compel you to exempt women from taxation for the support of the government and from penalties for the violation of laws. There is no she or her or hers in the tax laws, and this is equally true of all the criminal laws.

In other words, you can’t say out of the one side of your mouth that “he/him/man/guys” refers to all human beings and out the other side that “he/him/man/guys” refers only to those determined to be male. What are we to do when we are told, “All guys go to the right. All girls go to the left”? I am “one of the guys,” so which side do I belong on? I am torn–some of my girlfriends are urging, “Here, here, come over here,” while others who are neither girls or boys or necessarily friends, are urging me over there.

Including women (and children, not to mention numerously other-gendered folks) in the terms of MAN and GUYS, is the best way to exalt men and devalue anyone else. “Man” and “guys” become the normed group to which others are included by virtue of the power of manguy to speak for all of us. It is their interests that determine the nature of the group, WE are just along, willing to be defined by people we are not, and by people who have historically seen it in their best interests to deny US the rights that were common sense and appropriately given to them. I reckon excluding women (and children, not to mention numerously other-gendered folks) from the terms of MAN and GUYS, is only going to happen when the manguys decide that the others don’t really merit inclusion–such as in the vote or property or inheritance or leadership or just plain-old everyday self-determination and expression. As long as we “act” like a guy, we’re welcome . . . once we don’t, their inclusive group is going to suddenly be exclusive, as when “man” meant in Anthony’s day both “men only (white, propertied)” as well as “men, women, and children.”

From here on out, I have decided to refer to any group of male and/or female human beings, at least if being casual is appropriate to the setting, as “gals.” While I would prefer to use “folks,” it does not go very far in making my point, which I’ve decided is the least I can do.

I don’t like Aunt Nancy, but then again I do

Spiders like our house. Until this week I have not wanted to have it sprayed, but one brown recluse bite later, my tune is changing. The little devil bit me behind my knee on Monday night. By Tuesday morning I had a black-and-blue spot with a dark center, and by 2pm I was feeling vertigo and nausea, so went to the doctor. She said it was a brown recluse, gave me a steroid and antibiotic shot and sent me to the pharmacy for more antibiotic pills. By 4:30pm I was trying to find a comfortable way to sit, wrapped up in a blanket to stop the chills. Fever set in. I started Facebooking for a little pity and advice, since as it happened no one was home that night, which made me feel rather pathetic. At 101.2 I was graduating to surreal, and my Fb posts show it! I was prepared to call ER if it rose to 102, but finally about 45 minutes after the ibuprofen I’d taken set in, it began dropping from a high of 101.4 to a steady 100. I could think and eat again. Watched an episode of “The Following.” Went to bed, slept. . .

By morning I was feeling pretty chipper, so I went to work and then headed up to Louisville to listen to an interview of Michael Pollan (re his new book, Cooked) by Wendell Berry–more on that in another post. Then the stabbing began again. I went out to the car during the (boring) Q/A and put my leg up. Bactroban cream only works awhile. My friend Leslie drove part of the way home so I could keep the leg up. Went to bed thinking, “it needs rest,” but what it needed was to complain some more, and some more. Finally got up at 2am and went to the kitchen, took another tylenol with codeine, had a glass of wine, and finally crawled back in to bed, and finally to sleep, at 4am, after too many games of Solitaire and Scrabble.

Moral of the story: Don’t let Aunt Nancy bite you!

I was reminded of the nickname by Erika Brady, one of WKU’s fine folklore professors, who responded to my Facebook trauma posts, so this morning I got back on google and low and behold, discovered that one of my favorite novels–one that I’VE published about–Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow, integrates the “Ghanian spider-trickster, Kwaku Ananse,” into the novel and in particular, the characters Joseph Lebert and Aunt Cuney. I wrote about African myths in my article, but did not know about Ananse. I wish I’d had this article (by Shanna Greene Benjamin, “Weaving the Web of Reintegration”) when I wrote my own, back in 1996….but instead of my quoting her, she quotes me (twice). Sweet! Thanks, Shanna Benjamin . . . (if you see this, let me know!) So, if it weren’t for my spider bite, Erika wouldn’t have commented on the dangers of Aunt Nancy, which wouldn’t have sent me off on my little google scavenger hunt, and would therefore have never turned up Benjamin’s article quoting mine! Crafty web-making here!

Here’s the little critter we’re talking about:

Aunt Nancy Brown Recluse

Aunt Nancy Brown Recluse


I am not going to post any of the many grotesque images from google of the recluse bites of those poor folks out there who either didn’t get help soon enough or for some other reason found their flesh disintegrating. Suffice it to say that my site is very black and blue, red, angry, and still growing. But now, thanks to my doctor, I have begun a second antibiotic. (Also thanks to her I’ve got some Lortabs for tonight)….

Aunt Nancy, you are strong, but you can’t have me!

I’m attending the NEH Rethinking the Land Ethic Faculty Institute in Flagstaff

Less than a week into the month-long NEH institute, and I’m learning so much. The readings are very good–how could they be other than depressing, but also stirring and beautiful. I came here to learn about sustainability and the humanities–and I am–but also about myself, my world. I guess that’s what it means. My reading list has gotten ridiculous, but I’m well into thinking about an essay of the same title as the course I’d like to develop and teach in the spring: Writing the River.

Just for instance, look at the work of Basia Irland: http://www.basiairland.com/bio/