Last Days - Last Words

SUBHEAD: I’ve decided it’s better to be an honest observer of a dark world than to make up cheery lies for desperate people.  

By John Rember on 14 January 2012 for Nature bats Last -

Image above: Sun Valley Pavilion. From (  

For most of my life, I’ve been a teacher of rhetoric, which means that I’ve taught writers how to take difficult or unpopular ideas and get them across to people who don’t want to think about them. Usually those people were my students, and the most difficult and unpopular idea I tried to get across to them was that they needed to learn rhetoric.

Many of them thought they already knew rhetoric. They’d gotten As in high school English classes by having strong but conventional opinions. They thought they came to college knowing what would get them another A on the two-page essays I assigned in composition classes.

So a lot of papers began, “You shouldn’t have twenty-nine cosmetic surgeries to turn yourself into a six-foot Barbie Doll because …” or “We shouldn’t have a draft because America is a free country and you’re not free if you have to go into the Army …” or “Women shouldn’t work once they have children because my mother quit her career once she had my brothers and me and she’s happy just being a Mom.”

I would scribble Ds or Fs on these papers, which made my office hours occasions for tears or anger. “What do you want me to say?” was the most common question, as if I was teaching catechism and all they had to do was memorize dogma. Others, more sophisticated, assumed that I was the kind of liberal academic that right-wing radio commentators railed against, and turned in perfectly written but completely dishonest papers that advocated transfers of wealth from rich to poor, North to South, former slave-owners to former slaves, and so on. More Ds and Fs.

For a high school student used to getting As, one F paper is a catastrophe. Two or more are identity-destroying events. In the case of a sincere effort by a bright high school student to manipulate a college teacher, an F threatens the foundations of the universe.

Six weeks into a semester, when I walked into the classroom and wrote, “How to Get an A in this Class” on the whiteboard, I had the survivors’ attention. Here’s the gist of what I wrote below that heading:
–Stop giving a shit about your grades.

–As a writer, you’re a witness who has an obligation to honor the world as it is, not a person trying to cram the world into the tiny space inside your skull.

–Everything in your world, including this class, the chair you’re sitting on, the room you’re sitting in, this college, your clothes and car and the food you eat, was once a paradigm-challenging idea.
–Tell the truth if you can. Deliberate lies will rot your brain.

–Any paragraph longer than four or five sentences will piss off your audience and they’ll go away. If they can’t go away because reading your writing is their job, they’ll give you a D or an F.
“Is there anyone who can’t understand any of this?” I would ask.

The next set of papers would be better. It’s amazing what people can come up with if you give them permission to look around themselves and to record what they see.
I tried to keep my students entertained. “Given the current state of the world,” I would say, “it’s likely that we’ll all die on the same day. The difference between us will be that I’ve seen the Doors and Led Zeppelin and Jefferson Airplane in concert.”

I recently threatened the foundations of my entire universe. I wrote a credo, a statement detailing why I write. It’s something I have asked my advanced writing students to do, but it’s a dangerous thing because when a lot of people sit down to discover the reasons why they want to be a writer, they can’t find any.

In spite of the fact that one of my books is a why-to-write book, I still got into credo trouble. Here are some troubling excerpts:
“I’ve had a crisis of faith about my teaching and writing career—fortunately I’m not in the middle of that career — and have come up hard against the questions I should have answered years ago: Why not just mess around with words and tell funny little stories to make people happy? Surely there’s another vampire novel that needs to be written — why not make pots of money with your God-given talent? 

Here’s one answer: You write to wake people to the condition of their world, which looks none too good. Climate change and the crisis of capitalism make me happy that I’m old enough to have gone to concerts in the 1960s. 

I’m also happy that I walked away from a tenured full professorship at the College of Idaho, a small high-quality liberal arts institution in the American northwest. At the time I left the classroom, I had a nice house, a new car, a new book out from a major publisher, and was newly running the school’s honors program. Saying goodbye to all that was a voluntary plunge into poverty, free time, and labor that freed my mind as it occupied my muscles. It was a sudden lack of institutional identity, committee meetings, and faculty politics. It had come from a sudden awareness of how much the unconscious narcissism of my first-year writing students was paralleled by the more sophisticated but still unconscious narcissism of my colleagues and of the institution itself.

The existential questions that an academic job insulated me from suddenly got more urgent, which was okay, as I had time to consider them rather than having them all gang up on me on my deathbed.
The prime existential question: Can you trust your own perceptions?

The subprime existential question: What else can you possibly trust?

I’ve decided it’s better to be an honest observer of a dark world than to make up cheery lies for people desperate to spend their lives in culturally-prescribed illusion. If I wanted to make up lies I would have gone into advertising and made a lot more money and had a secretary who looked like Christina Hendricks.

So I’m exploring the end of this world as I see it. I don’t know if anyone will read my writing in a hundred years, or if anyone will be able to read in a hundred years. I don’t even know if anyone will be alive in a hundred years, unless it’s bacteria hanging out in hydrothermal reservoirs a mile beneath the surface of the earth. But if bacteria can read, I’d like them to understand that in the last few decades of human existence, one of those humans looked around himself, observed carefully and thought about what he observed, and wrote down the results of that thinking — dark existential jokes, mostly, which I’m pretty sure deep-biosphere bacteria prefer above all other forms of humor. Other than the jokes, there’s a certain last will and testament quality to what I’m writing, not because I’m planning on dying anytime soon, but because there’s a lot to elegize these days.”

That’s part of what I wrote in an honest attempt to be honest with myself. Where I got in trouble was with the grief end of things. I ended by saying, “There’s plenty to write about in this world, especially if you can keep existentially funny and honestly grief-stricken about it.”

I think that if I had been in a writing class as an eighteen-year-old, and the professor had written Existentially Funny and Honestly Grief-Stricken on the board, and told me I had to adhere to that standard, I would have run out of the classroom there and then. I would have gone skiing instead.

A full professorship is a guaranteed income for life, and a job you can define to your liking. It also includes the ability to wear tweed without looking like a character actor in a British TV series, the obsequious questions of local reporters when they need an interview about holiday gift books, the deep attention of first-year students determined to discover the wellsprings of your vanity — all these things were mine, and more. But I gave it up in return for ten years of health insurance for Julie and me and a new title: Writer-at-Large, which sounds good but mostly means that I’m out of the College’s hair. The number of complaining students in the academic dean’s office — outraged that their professor has just told them they’ll never see Jim Morrison in concert — has gone down since I left the campus.

Still, I retain some personal connections with the College, and one of them is a friendship with the ski-team coach, and he invited me to ski with the team as they trained at the Sun Valley Resort last week. Sun Valley is one of the oldest and most luxurious of American ski resorts. But its managers have lately become aware that their wealthy geriatric customers represent a high-mortality demographic, and they’re making an effort to provide their luxurious facilities — and this year, expensive artificial snow — to various college and high-school ski teams, in the hope that these young people will become future paying customers. I got to go along as the future paying customers’ unofficial assistant coach.

I wasn’t much of a coach. For the past twenty years I’ve been on loose-fitting backcountry ski equipment — the kind where you put skins on the bottom of your skis and hike to the top of the mountain before removing the skins and skiing down — and ski racers ski on rigid precision equipment that befits a sport where winners and losers are separated by hundredths of a second. The students were suspicious of my skis, boots, and bindings when they weren’t being suspicious of an old white-haired guy who showed up to help set up the course and replace the gates when they knocked them down.

When I got on the gondola to ride to the top of the mountain, service people in Sun Valley Company livery took my skis from me, put them in the external ski racks, and ushered me to my seat. At the top, they took a look at me, saw someone who looked a lot like one of their paying customers, took my skis from the rack, handed them to me, and asked if I needed help putting them on.

Somewhere in the middle of my second gondola ride, I realized that if the people who run the world spend much of their time at ski resorts, it’s going to be a long time before they realize there’s anything wrong with the world economy. They’ll be a couple of hundred feet off the ground in a gondola when the electricity goes out, and only eight hours later, when nobody has come to rescue them, will they realize that the only bubble left is the one they’re marooned in.

I trusted Western Civilization and its electricity enough to keep riding the gondola for a few days. When a high-speed lift takes you to the top of a mountain, and that mountain is covered with artificial snow groomed to machine tolerances, you get a lot of skiing in. You can, for brief moments, head downhill in wide fast turns, indulging yourself in cultural fictions, imagining yourself as a downhill racer in the Winter Olympics, at least until your old legs give out halfway down the mountain.

In the evenings, in a condo, eating with ski team, I was able to ask them things I was curious about: what they planned to do six months after they graduated and how they were paying for college. They were paying for college with loans, or their parents were. They didn’t know what they were going to be doing after college. They hadn’t thought about it. They said the question scared them.

Besides skiing, these student-athletes spent the week on the Olympic-size ice rinks, at the bowling alley, and in the giant heated pool adjacent to the Lodge. They slept in luxurious condominiums and watched TV, as befitted future paying customers, and I couldn’t help but imagine that in their secret hearts, each of those young people did know what they were doing after college. They saw themselves in twenty or thirty years, as honored and aging champions with ski-racer children just like themselves. Having aged well, they would be skiing through long sunny days, competing in masters’ races, drinking fine wines and eating in high-end restaurants, and going back to great, cathedral-like homes and sleeping the sleep of the just before getting up and doing it all over again. Right now Sun Valley is full of people whose lives are proving such a dream is possible.

And yet, that’s not going to happen for these student-athletes. The lifestyle they aspire to has already outlived its safe-to-eat date, even if they somehow came up with the price of admission after paying off their college loans.

In the world they will graduate into, newspapers tap the phones of bereaved families. Financial services companies manipulate governments when they’re not running those governments. Even if they don’t believe in global warming, they can see that we’re destroying what’s left of a wild and beautiful world in our haste to turn it all into habitat for humanity. Seven billion of us are crowding the planet, and anyone with a pocket calculator can figure out that we haven’t got the room or the resources or the climate stability to do what we’ve been doing for yet another generation. That’s been true for several generations now.

What are you going to do after graduation? The question scares the shit out of me, and I’m sixty-one years old.

As a professor of rhetoric, I necessarily became a student of narcissism, which for simplicity’s sake I define as not knowing where your boundaries end and the rest of the world begins.

Writing itself is a narcissistic attempt to expand your boundaries, a demand that people stop what they’re doing and pay attention to you, with a subtext that you know something they don’t and they need to know it. Done properly, you respect the humanity of your readers, giving them the kind of personhood normally reserved strictly for yourself. Psychologists will give you an A for this sort of thing, conferring upon it the title of Healthy Narcissism.

Healthy or not, most people are resistant to being told something that they need to know if it impinges on what they expect their life to be.

I told my students that there were too many people on the planet, but as far as I know, that didn’t cause anyone not to make babies. I told them that the planet’s atmosphere was a chaotic system, and when you change the composition of a chaotic system, the future loses any connection to the past, but that didn’t stop them from preparing for jobs in the oil industry. I told them that without a way to redistribute wealth, capital would accumulate in stagnant pools that would eventually destroy whole countries’ economic systems, but that didn’t keep them from going deeper into debt to pay for college and from signing up for thirty-year mortgages a year into their first job.

After being ignored on life-and-death matters, I began to look at good old Unhealthy Narcissism, which is more common than the healthy kind. It comes about when you don’t respect the separate existence of other people. Instead you see them as personal extensions. The self, however poverty-stricken and shabby it might be, becomes the world.

The eighteen-year-olds in my classes tended to see their classmates and their professors as character actors in the plays they were starring in. Professors had their costumes and their dialects and their quirky ways, but were not really part of the action unless we violated their assumptions about their world-selves by giving them bad grades.

Unhealthy narcissism becomes a learning disability. In its extreme form, it becomes indistinguishable from psychopathic character disorder, whose victims see other people only as victims. That in itself is bad enough, but the hopes and dreams my students expressed — the ones that they so happily subsumed other human beings into — were so shoddy, so tacky, so utterly predictable, that they reduced the world to a third-rate traveling vaudeville show’s stage set, one that no longer had any pretensions to suspending the disbelief of any but the most credulous of audiences.

Occasionally one of my students would wake to the artifice of the low-grade work of imagination they were starring in. When they spoke from that instant of consciousness, here’s what they would say: “I’ve spent my life studying so I can get good grades so I can get into a good college so I can get into a good grad school so I can get a good job and have a good career and have a good marriage and good kids and graduate to a good retirement community until I’m taken to a good nursing home to die in the midst of morphine hallucinations.”

“Only if your good college loans are paid off,” I would tell them.

But most students never woke up, and they defended the stage sets of their dreams in the face of all contradictory evidence. That’s the trouble with narcissism: start seeing the world as an extension of yourself, and the world becomes fragile, friable, temporary, able to be wounded by your wounds, and extinguished by your physical or philosophical death.

Bertrand Russell’s Philosophically Dead Rooster speaks:
“Every day my farmer comes with food and water. He’s a good guy, who has my best interests in mind. He cleans up my coop, makes sure I have a goodly supply of hens, protects me from the foxes I occasionally glimpse on the other side of the wire, and does all these things out of gratitude for my glorious crowing that serves to start his day.”
Bertrand Russell points out that one day the farmer comes to the coop with an axe, and that’s the day when the rooster needs a less narcissistic view of how the world works.

 A confession: I was born in Sun Valley. My father was a hard-rock miner in a lead-silver mine fifteen miles away, and the Sun Valley Resort, then the property of Union Pacific Railroad, had the best hospital in the county. It helped that my mother worked as a nurse there.

When I was six, my father got a job driving a ski bus at the resort, and after school I would ride with him. I’d help him clean the bus at the end of his shift. On weekends, because I was an employee dependent, I would ski free. My skis and ski poles and boots were second-hand, and I received no instruction, but by the time I was in high school I was an expert skier.

At age seventeen I was hired as a Sun Valley ski patrolman, and I began to take people with broken legs and torn knees and lacerated flesh down to ambulances and would ride with them in the ambulance to the hospital emergency room. I became used to treating trauma victims and talking with them, and saw that people in shock often believe that they’re seeing things clearly for the first time in their lives.

I became an even better skier. Ski reps gave me state-of-the-art equipment. I could dance through a field of moguls, touching down on every second or third one. I took some horrendous falls but was never seriously injured. Paying customers would cheer me on from the lifts, and I tended to ski under the lifts. I was part of the Sun Valley experience, an example of what the paying customers could do if they only had the time.

When I was twenty-two, fresh out of college, I became the mountain manager for Sun Valley’s bunny hill and entered into Sun Valley Company’s executive training program.

I attended management meetings with the president and vice-presidents of the company, and was introduced to the operative metaphor of all ski managers, which was that operating a ski mountain was a form of animal husbandry. At night, the fields would be groomed for a new crop of skiers. Equipment had to be maintained, fresh feed had to be brought to the mountain restaurants, injured livestock had to be carted away, stock driveways had to be maintained, and predators — people sneaking onto the lifts without tickets or skiing too fast — had to be eliminated.

It was not the first time I had heard people referred to as unthinking grazers — some of the poorer skiers were even referred to as vegetables — but I was shocked by this callousness in what was supposed to be the hospitality business. However, the metaphor worked in that it allowed for the efficient and impersonal pushing of large numbers of people through an industrial process, one that depended on them sliding down steep slopes with boards clamped to their feet and calling it play.

It was play for me, as was much of my life off the slopes. There are worse things than to be an athletic twenty-two year old with a well-paying job at a world-class ski resort during the year the United States pumped more oil than anytime before or since. Unlimited wealth was in the air. Old people gave me money just to ski with them on my days off. The great-grandchildren of the financiers in American History books became my apr├Ęs-ski companions, and they didn’t seem to resent either my skiing ability or my relative poverty.

But unconscious narcissism wears thin, no matter how happy it is in the moment. Before long, I began to see my life as a tedious slideshow of other people’s vacations. At the end of that season, I quit my job as mountain manager, backed out of the executive training program, and asked for my old job back as a ski patrolman.

But when I got back in the patrol shack, the people I worked with treated me with contempt. I had rejected a step up in the system, and they saw me as a slacker, or crazy, or a subversive — all three, really. I lasted another season and then found a job as a teacher, where the system was more complicated, the steps up more numerous, and the work a little less like animal husbandry.
But not that much less. It has not escaped my notice that I tend to quit jobs when I start glimpsing the shimmering outlines of the dehumanizing bioindustrial structure that I’ve been succeeding in. Just as I learn the system and gain the ability to suck more people into it, I chicken out, in Bertrand Russell’s terms. In the terms of the people still in the system, I go insane and fly the coop.

I live in a country whose highest court has given corporations the kind of personhood people normally reserve for themselves. It’s the least narcissistic thing our high jurists have ever done, and yet they’ve done it from within the bubble of their own narcissism. Go figure.

But our Supreme Court is right. Corporations are persons. They want to feed, grow, live, and be entertained. Occasionally they want to die. More occasionally they go criminally insane. Like most people, they operate according to their reptile brains, which is to say that most of their actions reflect an unhealthy, other-destroying compulsion that they’re not even aware of.

Corporations inevitably treat other organisms — even their CEOs — as livestock or feedstock. Corporations treat the world as uncleared acreage to be turned into a giant farm, and render their employees into genetically-modified organisms.

A year ago, in Hanoi, visiting the Palace of Literature, I ran into another American tourist, one working for Monsanto in Beijing. He told me that the project he was working on was simple. Monsanto had taken on the job of producing as much food in the next fifty years as all of humankind has produced in the last seven thousand. “If we don’t,” he said, “people will starve.” He sounded happy and proud and a little frightened. I had the impression that he was channeling another entity, and that he wasn’t quite big enough for the job.

One of my more dismal realizations is that corporations have figured out that they need to be people, but they have no need for humans to be people.

Since corporations are so much bigger than humans, it’s possible to feed off their excretions, like a little sweat-bee, snug and warm in an adipose fold, going along for a ride that would never be possible if you had to proceed under your own power.

Every summer a symphony orchestra assembles in Sun Valley, and plays at a huge copper-roofed travertine amphitheater built expressly for its performances. Sun Valley Symphony musicians are drawn from the municipal symphonies all over the planet. This summer Julie and I drove down to hear them perform Tchaikovsky’s speedy Opus 35 in D major.

Vadim Gluzman, one of the world’s best violinists, did the honors, playing the 1690 Stradivarius that had belonged to Tchaikovsky’s mentor. It was the instrument the work had been written for.
We were on the lawn above the amphitheater with a picnic and a bottle of good red wine, but during the last two movements I walked to the top row of seats, knelt down, and watched Gluzman through binoculars.
I gave up on any ambitions to play the violin. I knew that David Oistrakh’s performance of the concerto in Stalingrad in 1942 was supposed to have turned the tide of the Second World War, but realized that the grim circumstances forever denied Oistrakh and his audience the warmth and humanity and forgiveness that Gluzman brought to the work.

Cultural critics have suggested that Tchaikovsky’s concerto is a high point of Western Civilization. If so, Gluzman’s performance kicked Western Civilization to a new peak, at least for twenty minutes in North America in the early part of the 21st century.

It was a warm and sunny afternoon, and as happy and awed people came streaming out of the amphitheater, Julie and I stayed in our lawn chairs. We were in no hurry to leave. Sun Valley policemen were directing concert traffic. It would take a half-hour to clear, and we still had some chocolate left.

I began to think how odd it was that I had been born here, in 1950, and was still here. I always had thought I’d make it further in life.

Then I thought to myself that there were worse places to end up than a geographically gated community, listening to an orchestra put together from the world’s best musicians. There were worse times to have spent a life than 1950-2012, and worse places to have spent it than under the high clear skies of central Idaho.

Then I started thinking other odd things. For one, I noticed that many of the couples attending the concert consisted of well-preserved and purposeful women leading confused old men to and from their seats. It’s what happens when you pair beautiful young women with older men, and then add two or three decades. My mind jumped ahead to hanging up my skis, the bypass operation, and the moment when the buttons on the cell phone become too many and too complicated.

My mind went further, into the amphitheater. Travertine blocks affect me like a drug. Even small doses make me think of the Romantic follies built on English estates in the 19th century.
But I was gazing into a travertine overdose. Vivid hallucination replaced my senses. I saw, in the Pavilion’s skeletal steel superstructure, a time when thieves had stripped the roof of its copper. The dressing rooms on either side of the stage had been turned into holding pens for the unwilling stars of blood rituals.

I realized it was a facility designed for a time when civilization will be dust.

I suddenly wanted the Sun Valley Symphony to arrange a midnight performance of Carmina Burana, with the Pavilion lit by flickering, smoking torches, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir prescribed high-dose amphetamines for the occasion, and human sacrifices during the finale to ensure that biodiesel will be cheap and plentiful during the coming potato harvest.

The amphitheater was empty. Julie got a purposeful look on her face and said it was time to go, and it took a moment to understand that she wasn’t talking about my earthly existence. I took our wine bottle to the recycling bin, and we walked back to our old car, sitting by itself in the parking lot.

How do you get through to people who don’t want to hear what you have to say? You don’t, mostly. Our lives don’t prepare us to understand the experience of others, and to others, our acute consciousness of the world makes us look like babbling shock victims.

People married for decades look at each other, and if one of them wakes up, they each gaze into the eyes of a stranger. Hopes and dreams, in retrospect, turn out to be about something else entirely. Only with great effort and care can we attain the language to tell our stories to other people, and even then they might not like what we tell them.

In an infinite universe, we each occupy but a point. It’s not much, but it’s our point, and we possess it entirely, and it us. We’re stuck in it, and it traps us in the center of all we can experience, no matter how fast and how far we flee.


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