Thursday, December 30, 2010

Raison d'Etre

"As life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time, at the peril of being not to have lived. "
                                      --Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr

In the way-back reaches of hominid history, an ancestor of mine sat on a dusty hill overlooking the African grassland.  Time began when she was born (or maybe when her grandmother was born).  The entire universe was 2000 square miles she'd covered on foot or seen with her eyes.  I bet her conversations were just like the ones I have: some deep, many superficial, with lots of glossings-over, simplifications, and a few bare-faced lies.  I can see her in eye of my mind:  on that hill, seated in the dirt, skin filthy, hair matted...

It's kinda hot, like most late-afternoons there, and she's been working all day.  Everything was work.  Without boiling water even eating's a chore.  She's spent several hours right here on this hill today, chipping a softball size chunk of obsidian.  I don't know if she came up with this by accident, or cobbled it from a panoply of conversations with erstwhile friends and lovers.  I like to think she figured it out yesterday, dreamed it up last night.

A hundred or so yards away was the object of her intention--the bloody carrion of an antelope or giraffe.   One that had known an incredible life--marked by cool mornings, comfortable rests, full bellies....--all ignobly ended in five really bad minutes.  Here she would remain for a couple hours, this ancestor of mine.  She'd wait for the jackals and buzzards to pick the bones.  Once they were gone she would descend the hill.  She'd lift the sharpened stone high in the air and split open the thigh bones of the convenient beast.  She'd take the biggest one and stuff the broken end into her mouth, greedily consuming the metallic-tasting marrow.  No hesitation.  No thoughts of dirty-germs, or better-ways, or self-consciousness.  Not a moment of doubt.  Thoreau has nothing on this incredible woman.

It would make all the difference.  By the time it was over she had developed the most important tool in the history of human evolution, and added the most important marginal component of human diet.  Her innovation would dominate the next million and a half years of human history.

I wonder what she traded for her discovery.  How many lovers and friends were alienated.  How much leisure she gave up.  How much status she lost in her community for crushing bones and drinking blood.  How bad her stomach hurt after that first feast.  The courage (or desperation) it took to do it again.  Or maybe it cost her very little.  Maybe she would have just wasted that time anyway, and maybe her neighbors were themselves too hungry to judge her.

Here I sit on the other side of the agricultural, scientific, and industrial revolutions, fatter and more comfortable than she ever was.  I have time and means to read, smoke, think, pray, drive, listen to music, and on it goes.  In my world of plenty, every action can be quantified against a thousand trade-offs, comforts, and could-be's.  Surely I must have some motivation to write and converse, speculate and ruminate, curse and bless.

Which all brings me to the reasons for this blog.  I'm borrowing the first one from Aristotle--that the attempt to understand the world is one of life's highest goods.  I don't know what Holmes would say to this: is the simple act of thinking about the world really the boldest way of interacting with it?  The second is borrowed from Tim Burton's Big Fish.  In it, the main character inhabits a world of his own understanding and tells about it in colorful ways.  If we don't tell our own story, packed sickeningly full of our own ideas, then it will be told by nasty, prejudiced others.  Forget 'em!  Of course, I also want to talk about big things and adopt tall notions.  I want to explore grand worlds that can't be seen in five minutes of banter, no matter how intense.  Finally, I want petulant strangers, critical friends, and the rancid ignorant Others who journey the wastes of digital nihilism--all to step forward, vomit their psycho-socio dregs across the plank of my words, to drop their dysentery on the dinner plate of my knowledge.  I want you to do this because, as Whitman said:

     What is commonest, cheapest, nearest, easiest, is Me,
     Me going in for my chances, spending for vast returns,
     Adorning myself to bestow myself on the first that will take me,
     Not asking the sky to come down to my good will,
     Scattering it freely forever.

I stole this blog's name from Julia Sweeney.  Shoot me, you Mindless Pigs.