The Cockleburs of Culture

Fortuitously or otherwise, events public and private have combined recently to focus my attention ever more closely on downsizing, reducing and simplifying my life, making it more satisfying, more useful to myself and others, eliminating the unnecessary, distinguishing between what I merely want and what I need.

Having spent the last 50 years doing high-profile IT work, much of it ‘bleeding edge’, having worked 140-hour weeks for months at a time, having been on-call 24×7 most of those years, the artificiality of that work was never questioned, certainly not by me. Yet the work and the life it consumed were essentially ‘virtual’ compared to the reality of making cheese, building furniture or houses, knitting scarves, raising children, tending the ill and elderly. Manipulating bits and bytes was interesting, challenging and financially rewarding but ultimately unsatifying.

I’d call it a mid-life crisis, except that that phase came and went decades ago. What’s happening now is deeper, more basic to the experience of modern America. In the process of reconstructing my world, I began to realize how plugged in I am – how plugged in we all are – to the Zeitgeist.

I have been a cynic since about age 4 (which was when I noticed the clay feet of my idols).
I deliberately make periodic re-evaluations of my beliefs and understandings of the world to tweak them as new knowledge emerges; adjusting, fine-tuning or abandoning long-held postitions when appropriate. (The only way to prove you have a mind is to change it.) Not being a particularly social animal, I am less embedded in the culture than most. I have always felt myself to be an outsider; not quite a non-participant but at least a reluctant and detached one.

It therefore comes as something of a shock to discover how many of my unthinking, knee-jerk reactions have been co-opted by a script written by business, politicians and Madison Avenue; force-fed by schools, books, movies, TV, peer-pressure, mass media and mass psychology. Fifty years of life in the fast lane meant Convenience assumed God-like status. Shopping, I now have to consciously avoid the ‘Meals for Two in 10 Minutes’ or ‘Three Minute Supper’ in favor of buying and preparing real food. We tend to look at Convenience as being expensive in terms of money and energy, which it is. But we seldom think of it as being improverished in terms of reality. yet it is. I have always questioned the American Dream and the American Way Of Life, but evidently I didn’t question rigorously enough.

There are things I do specifically because they counter what I know to be a bad habit or personal shortcoming: I am by nature impatient, so I delberately took up cabinetry and weaving, which force me to be patient. I have come to realize there are many more things I must be very deliberate about if I am to unplug from a world and culture which I feel is becoming increasingly artificial, meaningless, inane and ultimately doomed when our lifestyle proves unsustainable.

I saw a comic yesterday of someone reacting to his inability to get Online: Call the ISP! Call his Senator! Go outside to the real world then run back inside in panic! Get drunk! Go to bed and curl up in a foetal position! etc etc etc.
Been There, Done That

I am going back to simplicity not so much for the economics or the survival aspects, but simply for the freedom of it; the freedom to be real in the way a three-year-old is real, pre-socialized, pre-indoctrinated, fully human. I don’t want what I do/eat/buy/wear/see/hear/say/feel/think/live to be determined by someone else’s agenda. And anyone – ANYONE – who thinks he or she is immune to being infected by our mass culture is deluding himself or herself. It’s too pervasive, too poliished, too slick to escape without significant effort and continuous awareness – and escape is a close-run thing under the best of circumstances.

I have used the metaphor of ‘unplugging from the world’, but it’s actually more the other way ’round: unplugging the world from me. When I was a kid roaming the sagebrush and forests and brush country of Colorado, I would sometimes blunder into a weed which left hundreds of tiny cockleburs stuck all over my clothes and any bare skin. I would then spend an hour meticulously extracting them, always finding later that I had missed some.
Unplugging from the world will be like that. But I really have no choice.

Whatever splits, dissevers, cuts, cracks, ravels, or divides
To bring me to that diet of corrosion, burned
And flickered to its terminal.–Now in an older hand
I write my name. Now with a voice grown unfamiliar,
I speak to silences of altered rooms,
Shaken by knowledge of recurrence and return.
– Weldon Kees

Wish me luck. And you’re welcome to join me. 🙂

10 Replies to “The Cockleburs of Culture”

  1. I have always questioned the American Dream and the American Way Of Life, but evidently I didn’t question rigorously enough.

    Found another cocklebur.

    We’d been driving an 1998 Chevy Blazer and it was on it’s last legs with various problems not worth fixing. Last couple of years I rented a car for long trips, not wanting to risk breaking down 1000 miles from home and face huge repair bills to continue. I hadn’t really realized how stressful it was with the old wheels, but thinking back I was always alert for any unusual feel or sound that might presage trouble.

    It finally died and we bought a new car last week.

    I grew up semi-rural and cars were part of the culture but not part of the lifestyle. Came to NYC where a car was not only unnecessary, but more trouble and expense than it was worth. (Knew people who spent more for garage space than for their apartment). But it was the move upstate that embedded me in the suburban lifestyle, where a vehicle is so necessary one doesn’t think much about it.

    I was surprised at how much more relaxed and at ease it felt driving the new car, worry-free.
    I felt like driving to Maine next week, followed by Colorado and New Mexico.
    The ‘new car feeling’ is sort of this is how it’s supposed to be. And that’s the cocklebur.

  2. I’m not yet as evolved, but I’m trying. I taped this to my refrigerator a few weeks ago:

    “To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day. Profit comes from what is there, usefulness from what is not there.”

    Lao Tzu

  3. Maybe we ought to have a weekly Food Thread: recipes and remembrances and such.
    It’s a whole lot more real than most of what we spend our time being involved with, isn’t it?

  4. “avoid the ‘Meals for Two in 10 Minutes’ or ‘Three Minute Supper’ in favor of buying and preparing real food.”

    There is much that is unattractive about the deep south, but the attitude toward food is one of its more attractive ones. Most traditional meals are started early in the morning to be eaten at the main meal, which is at noon, and the cooking of it fills the home with delicious aroma all day, even after the meal is but memory. Dinner enriches the soul as much as it nourishes the body. I learned to cook thus and have done so since my teen years, and it is a tradition which has greatly enriched my life.

    Frozen food? Perish the thought. The freezer is for ice cream, ice for tea and juleps, and popsicles.

    1. That is the way to live, but it needs a slower lifestyle which is not always an option. The 140-hour-weeks I mentioned barely left time for coffee, much less food. (I slept 2-3 hours every other day, whether I needed it or not). 🙂

      I have noticed that people who do physical work tend to make the noon meal the big one. When I worked on ranches as a kid, I put on 15-20 pounds of muscle in 6-8 weeks working hard all day. Breakfast was eggs, pancakes, bacon, oatmeal, toast, biscuits, gravy and any pan-fried steak left over from the night before. Dinner (noon) was solid: meat-and-taters, thick stews, heavy noodles, etc – lot of carbs and meat. Supper was a bit lighter – steak or fish or chicken, pies, fruit.

      I’ve been part-timed for about a year and that has helped me slow down – I actually have time now to cook. And bake a mean pecan pie (the best North of the Mason-Dixon line). I hope to expand into cheesemaking and pickling eventually.

      And lots of coffee ranch-style: Fill a 5-gallon pot with water, dump in a pound of coffee, toss in a horseshoe and boil it til the horseshoe floats to the top. Will grow hair on a billiard ball, dehorn cattle, strip paint and burn through a tin cup.

      XKCD posted this a few days ago and it hit home.
      Time to get off the moving sidewalk, folks.

      1. Good point on the lifestyle. Not necessarily slower, although probably slower than what you had, but different. yes. A different focus. Women staying home to tend home and family. There, I said it. Shame on me.

        Many the day that I ate out or ordered in from places that really cooked food, prepared meals. Cooking the good meal was often reserved for weekends and holidays. Now that I’m retired they are more frequesnt. But I could never eat the frozen and “pre-prepared” stuff: fodder. “My mama didn’t raise me that way.”

        Oh, Lord, what I would give for a good pecan pie. I never learned to make it; my best efforts looked like oil sludge and tasted like the leavings from a molasses factory.

        1. Pecan pies recipes depend very much on your tastes.

          Basically sugar and syrup and eggs with a bit of other stuff.
          (Pecans are almost incidental – it’s a Chess Pie with pecans)

          How light/heavy it is depends on the type and ratio of sweet stuff:
          Molasses, dark corn syrup, light corn syrup, honey or even maple syrup.
          Dark brown sugar, light brown sugar or white sugar.
          I’ve experimented with different combinations, but I like it fairly light so I use Light Karo and light brown sugar.

          Also found a great ‘poor man’s pecan pie’ using soggy grapenut cereal instead of nuts.

          And for a real treat, a Vinegar Pie will confuse hell out of people.
          It’s delicious. 🙂

    2. My Southern freezer contains okra, which isn’t available fresh all year long, and fish, which better have been frozen at the first opportunity because I don’t live in a fishing town.

      Winter gumbo in the old days was thickened with filé, but to me it ain’t gumbo if it doesn’t have okra.

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