You’re seated in a crowded movie theater. You, and every other person in that space has entered into an unwritten contract, agreeing to certain rules guaranteeing a pleasant experience for everyone. No talking, smoking, cell phone noise, or alcohol consumption for starters. If a young child cries or misbehaves, adults remove the child from the theater. No shouting, “the butler did it!” moments before the butler does it.
Opening the door upon arrival and entering the theater lobby, the immediate whiff of buttery popcorn floods your nostrils. You abandon all common sense regarding health concerns, giving yourself a temporary hall pass from whatever fad diet you happen to be screwing up. After all, we’re at the movies. Consuming terrible food is in the contract.
There is something more fundamental, much more essential, to the unwritten contract than these simple applications. It involves the willingness to abandon the expectation for cinematic complexity; plot, character development, the expert co-habitation of sound and image to heighten emotion. We relinquish all of it when we purchase our ticket. Since Hollywood movies are really the only movies that matter, we toss hope aside for a deeply creative shared encounter with other people in favor of the all-too-typical story-line and syrupy ending.
We are content with this contact. It works. The filmmakers do not ask too much from our brains, and we can relax knowing no extraordinary mental exertion is expected of us. We need a place to not think about our lives, a cool, dark, comforting place we can focus on the lives of people who aren’t real. Feel their unreal emotions, pain, and happiness. Laugh at their silly stupidity. To know, even for a short time, the joy of being a likable criminal, or how cleansing it can be to exact murderous revenge. We can trick ourselves into knowing what it must have been like living in the past, or what it might mean to live in the future, even though it’s impossible knowing those things. The word for all this is escapism. For two hours, all we ask is that no one ask a thing from us except to feed us crap and let our fantasies shift into overdrive.
We leave the theater and step reluctantly into glaring sunlight. Our pedestrian day-to-day existence is once again lit for us. We squint, perhaps using our hand to shield oureyes from re-entering reality. We try to reflect on what we have just seen to prolong life in the world we’d just left, hoping to live in it as long as possible. Maybe we talk among friends and family to see if they identified as favorably with the fantasy as we did. But it’s no use. The brightness is overwhelming, and we go back home.
On August 19th, 1898, George Gordon of Bristol rode his bicycle past Highbury Chapel, Cotham. A policeman spotted him, calling out that he should ‘light up,’ meaning in those days activating some sort of attached lamp for safety purposes.
The time was 8:15 in the evening. Local law dictated all cyclists carry a lighted lamp during the period between one hour after sunset and one hour before sunrise, Greenwich Time. On this night, sunset in Greenwich had occurred at 7:13 pm. According to the policeman, Gordon had been caught riding illegally for a full two minutes.
Gordon dismounted his bicycle and objected, saying the sun set ten minutes later in Bristol than in Greenwich. So, by law, he had until 8:23 to get home unlighted, plenty of time since he lived only a minute away. After a warning not to mount his machine and ride off, Gordon did exactly that, saying in his appeal, “I refused to be dictated to and got on my machine to ride home. The constable came after me and called on me to dismount. I could easily have ridden off, but did not wish to produce a scene, so got off, gave my name and address, and again got up, after being again reminded that I was repeating the offense.”
The justices of the city of Bristol found Gordon guilty, saying that naturally anyone could benefit by having “a readily ascertained time of lighting up.” Justice Channell declared that sunset is not “a period of time,” but a physical fact. “According to the decision of the justices, as it stands, a man on an unlighted bicycle may be looking at the sun in the heavens, and yet be liable to be convicted of the offense of not having his lamp lighted an hour after sunrise.”
“Time has come today.”- The Chambers Brothers
“When we say that what has become is become, and what becomes is becoming, and that what will become is about to become and that the non-existent is non-existent- all these are inaccurate modes of expression. But perhaps this whole subject will be more suitably discussed on some other occasion.”- Plato
It is true, the more you watch Get Smart the more you understand KAOS and its affect on the planet. You learn KAOS is omnipresent and CONTROL a myth, at least as far as human activity is concerned. The universe, however, and universes beyond, all the way to Univers Zero, experience chaos and control simultaneously. In other words, they exist in objective order. You could say that Maxwell Smart, part bumbling, part crime solving government agent, embodies in human form how the universe operates, manifesting chaos and order in the same instant.
The more the U.S. tries to CONTROL the Middle East, the more KAOS ensues. We ought to be able to see the damage this suffocation produces. The ideology any powerful nation uses to protect and advance their interests, essentially can be interpreted as, “Those little children over there won’t play ball with us, so they must be spanked.” Or, “That tiny country over there, you know, the one you can barely see on a map, is threatening our illusory ideas of freedom, and must be taught a lesson no matter the cost.”
This isn’t an essay about the brutality of American foreign policy, Mr. and Mrs. Patriot, so don’t click me off just yet. I won’t go on about how our leaders purposely choose intelligence supporting their greedy ambitions overseas, while ignoring opposing intelligence entirely without debate.
What I will do instead, is let a progressive rock album very near and dear to my heart, Gentle Giant’s, The Power and the Glory, do it for me.
The best vantage point to view the problems that beset humanity is from satellite distance. Gentle Giant accomplishes this superbly with the album’s theme; despotic rulers and the populace blindly following them. By stretching the view to encompass every person, all are complicit. At the time the album was released (1974), corrupt kingdoms and the evils of war were becoming a tired concept running through progressive music, and to look at the cover you might think you were getting more of the same. Not from GG. There’s much more going on here.
The ideology of political rule, represented on the cover as a slightly altered rendition of a king of spades, suggests this charade between ruler and subservient is nothing but a game. The king has shifty eyes and a worrisome look, however, ready to draw his paranoid sword. This is not an interplay for the faint of heart. Throughout his rule (the analogy of course applies to the queen as well), the king knows he must have his head on a swivel, lest it be chopped off.
The game is the conquest of power and glory, never for money. Money is a prerequisite for holding an elevated position enabling the pursuit. The poor can never seek high rank in government. Additionally, there can’t be absolute power and glory if there is not the desire to conquer other nations. Very little power and glory is found by enriching citizen’s lives with well-thought domestic policies. No, it’s usually found in expansionism, confiscating as many natural resources, pillaging as much freedom and ending however many lives as necessary so the mighty can stand as tall as they need.
In the song So Sincere, we see how a leader deceives the population with false pretenses and empty rhetoric. The goal is to maintain the status quo by fulfilling a mission of exploitation. These missions vary from politician to politician, century to century. The bewildered herd is only given enough consideration to prevent the collapse of society, never enough of it to noticeably improve the quality of their lives. So, an aggressive government’s quest for power and glory is fought on two fronts; with weaker nations it knows it can defeat, and with its own people.
Aspirations is an achingly slow, remarkable song. It’s about the citizenry relinquishing power to politicians, essentially placing their own lives in their greasy palms. The melody is atmospheric and touching, sung with a sad sense of surrender. There are no answers except for those rulers provide. It’s a beautiful piece of music, suitable perhaps for a funeral procession if you replace the vocals with a violin. Shortly after 9/11, I envisioned it as America’s song to our president, singing it how billions of people must have ‘sung’ their song of despair to their leader’s throughout history:
As the dust settles, see our dreams, all coming true it depends on you
If our times, they are troubled times, show us the way, tell us what to do
Be our guide, our light and our way of life, and let the world see the way we lead away
Hopes, dreams, dreaming all our sorrows gone forever
Surrender to Power is the beginning of the end for a Just Society. The people hand their government a get out of jail free card, allowing them to act with impunity in completion of their crimes.
Rulers, therefore, can continue Playing the Game, another gem on the album. Brimming with confidence from the population’s unwillingness to thoroughly examine how they are being maneuvered, law makers are convinced not only are they doing the will of the people, but of God as well. Retribution is quick and deadly, in many cases cruel beyond belief. In the eyes of the powerful, CONTROL is rarely arbitrary, but an operation planned well in advance. A lyric in the song is particularly interesting;
All my games are won before they’re played for… I have planned that no opposition can stage a fight.
In modern warfare, unless you’re 20th century Germany, a country bent on tyrannical acquisition always picks on someone they can handle. Peripheral nations are used as pawns to drain enemies of similar resources and strength.
Ignorance is a permanent requirement to the machinations of global political systems; they don’t flourish by encouraging ideas counter-productive to their own. Let’s get smart about this. Even the most dedicated pursuers of justice, individuals such as Maxwell Smart, must maintain a level of ignorance acceptable to Power. For example, in one scene from the show, Max is in the Chief’s office discussing the kidnapping of Agent 99 by KAOS.
“Where do you think they have her hidden, Chief?” Max asks.
“Come over here, I’ll show you.”
The Chief walks in back of his desk, presses a button, and the walls begin to separate. We see a glimpse of what will be a large map. But Max can’t wait until it’s revealed, asking, “They have her hidden behind the wall, Chief?”
Having to choose worthy leaders from a serving tray of indoctrinated candidates leaves the masses zero hope. Once in a blue moon someone adequate comes along, sympathetic to the turmoil the average person lives with. But any success achieved from this clumsy alliance, as in the success of Maxwell Smart, is sheer luck. Electing and leading are not mutually exclusive endeavors.
In the end, despite all the destruction and death, nothing has really taken place. It’s a continuous loop where events will always play out exactly the same way. Strong country must get stronger or perish. It gobbles up weak country, literally or figuratively. Small risk, but over time, maybe centuries, big reward. And big business. The weak remain in perpetual poverty. Entropy, though, will eventually overrule. The mighty will turn weak, or at least weaker.
Obviously at times the population rises. No matter what good has been accomplished during a ruler’s reign, the people will tell him or her to go one day. Unfortunately, other well-connected vampires in search of The Power and the Glory open the lids to their coffins, ready to defy the light with their own Proclamation, So Sincere with Aspirations of Playing The Game. The wheel slowly turns around…
“Anybody who has the courage to raise his eyes and look sanely at the awful human condition… must realize finally that tiny periods of temporary release from intolerable suffering is the most that any individual has the right to expect.” -Flann O’Brien
A serial killer randomly guns down his helpless victims in broad daylight on city streets. A man sets fire to someone’s front door. A tsunami’s death toll is updated. Seven Russians are arrested by U.S. intelligence officers for cyber warfare. Police serve a Viet Nam vet a search warrant in South Carolina and are met with gunfire; one officer killed, six other officers wounded… the warrant was meant for someone else living in the house. A man intentionally blows up a car with his two-year old son and himself in it. A salmonella outbreak reaches 17 states.
All this took place in America in one day, presented nationwide in a half hour on the evening news. After 29 minutes of being bludgeoned over the head, the news anchor left us with a solitary feel-good story about a solider reuniting with his son. In an instant, all is well with the world once again.
Imagine all the horror they had to leave out. Odds are there was a shooting in Chicago, or several shootings in Chicago. Politicians everywhere are up to their eyeballs in corruption. The water in Flint, Michigan, and in many other towns and cities across the land, is still deadly. And you know there’s some sort of craziness leading to harm in Florida on a daily basis.
If your only source of information is the local and evening mainstream news, you will became insane at some point, either dreading existence, or regarding what is told to you as reality.
Humans, being the pattern seeking beings they are, must strengthen their powers of belief to fit psychological certainties carved into them since birth. That’s why we watch our particular brand of political news. We watch the evening news because we’re drawn to the world’s carnage and bloodshed, to a lesser or greater degree. The evening news knows this, and they’re more than happy to oblige. It’s only a matter of which stories will bring in the most advertising dollars.
The feel-good story tacked on to the end is simply a device to get you to tune in tomorrow. It provides a false measure of hope. There’s no point pinning it sloppily at the tail end of the death circus. It’s farcical, as is the awkward segue from an unpleasant story to sports, or the embarrassingly awful attempts at humor from anchors trying to lighten the mood.
The image we have of the world is what we see on the news; it can’t be any other way. If we actually wanted an honest and reasonable approach to newscasts, we’d stop watching and force networks to re-evaluate their presentations. We won’t do that. In the end, we perversely demand exactly what is given to us.
Gypsy Hill, Virginia, was founded in 1732 by Donald L. Packard, a railroad tycoon from Liverpool, England. He built his railroad which opened trade and growth to the North Eastern seaboard. After 400 homes, a bank, and five bars were constructed, the next set of buildings to go up in town comprised a mental institution. The Central Lunatic Asylum, a pristine example of Colonial revival architecture, opened in 1825, a crowning example of central Virginia’s newly materializing humanist policies.
Most of the picturesque and enjoyably walkable downtown was built between 1880 and 1910, tucked nicely in and around small but steep sloping hills, and surrounded by pink dogwood and Cleveland pear trees. It’s one of the finest Victorian small towns in America. In the pure sunlight illuminating brilliant blue skies, it feels like heaven. But when the gray, smoky fog rolls in over the west side of town, like soot spiraling up from a factory, you can’t help but think hell is on the way.
The asylum provided an aesthetically pleasing place to recover. Treatment centered around patient comfort, and participation in outdoor activities. Rooftop walks helped take in the majestic grounds and lush mountainside. Large common rooms connecting corridors encouraged socialization, as did group garden work. It was a natural therapeutic approach to psychiatric care. But after the Civil War, it turned into a dismal failure.
Insane asylums around the country suddenly became little more than warehouses for the dregs of society. The beautifully ornate structures common to the era proved to be dangerous to the patients housed inside them. In an effort to obtain better recovery outcomes, extreme techniques soon replaced the more principled philosophies of the past. Restraint, seclusion, and frontal lobotomies soon were a part of health practice. Patients were involuntarily sterilized as a way to genetically improve the quality of the population.
This modern bit of torture- sterilization- became known as eugenics, eventually collapsing after society fully realized the extent of the horror science had unleashed into the world. The Central Lunatic Asylum’s population gradually dipped and later was converted into a state prison. From that point it closed after only twenty years because of a lack of inmates, where it fell into neglect and decay.
As with everything else in American culture, circumstances always end up traveling down Commerce Highway. A large, wealthy investment group (is there any other kind?) bought the twenty acre property, renovating the buildings into condos.
Our friendly, reliable staff is eager to serve you!
The first female to grace the doors of Central Lunatic Asylum was Margaret Thornberry, an elementary teacher and resident of Gypsy Hill. Margaret and her husband Richard, one of the few bankers in town, had two children, and were regular church-going folk. Richard complained to authorities that he couldn’t take his wife’s overt enthusiasm for church anymore, that her behavior was breaking their family apart. Margaret was brought to the asylum for evaluation, diagnosed with “religious excitement”, and was admitted.
Margaret told the asylum staff she felt all along her husband was trying to get rid of her, and this seemed like the most honorable way to do it. Naturally, the townspeople could sympathize with a husband dumping his wife because he was a respected banker, and she was accused of being crazy. Upon reflection, Margaret did sing louder than most in church, the parishioners gossiped. She talked on and on about the Lord to such a degree sometimes you couldn’t get a word in edgewise. She was always smiling, as if immersed in a rapturous state, even when there shouldn’t have been anything to smile about. Most parishioners now had understood why Richard had her taken away. They all prayed for her health… in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
Margaret kept a journal those first few months. Bed bugs were common. Rats woke her up occasionally, running over and underneath her blankets. Sleep on those nights was impossible. Of course, there was nothing the staff could do to help. After several weeks the problems disappeared. For purposes of monitoring her recovery progress, Margaret wondered if these creatures had been placed in her room as an experiment.
But the odd occurrences continued on a regular basis. One day after the evening meal, she returned to her room and saw a bible on the table. Asylum policy forbade personal property of any kind on the premises. Again, thinking it might be a test, she decided to avoid it altogether and never open it. Now she wondered if she was the experiment.
Some time later, Margaret took a rooftop walk with an attendant, admiring the breathtaking scenery, reveling in the fresh mountain air. Her mind was at peace for one of the few times during her stay. For all the wrong that went on there, they got one thing right. Nature did soothe the nerves. She released herself from her meditative state to find herself alone. Her attendant stood talking to Charles Watt, asylum supervisor, watching her as he spoke. “He certainly was disinterested in engaging me in conversation as we walked,” she wrote in her journal. “When I noticed he had left my side without a word a fear overcame me. His occasional glances at me while he spoke to the supervisor seemed to be checking to see if I would move close to the edge, or even jump, as several patients had before.”
Margaret spent the next year in the asylum, and divorced, but was never suspicious of any ‘questionable’ treatment thereafter. She had no way of knowing how much better off she’d be than Claire O’Brien, admitted fifty years later at the height of the eugenics insanity, because of “excessive promiscuity.” Claire was sterilized, no doubt for the good of society, spent two weeks recovering, and was released.
It was back in high school when I noticed the change. Most of the seniors, all the cool ones anyway, hung out under the Senior Tree, the gathering spot for those who were going places. I was going nowhere. I knew this from the moment I entered high school and got a strong whiff of what my future held; stifling conformity, doing work I had no interest in for the benefit of others, yielding to the wishes of those more aggressive, and being asked to speak your mind when you knew damn well no one cared what it’s contents were.
Happily those days are behind me. I had a great time during those four years, but it had nothing to do with school. I lacked the desire for a career, whatever that meant. Ambition was nearly non-existent in me. When I recall the times roaming Hollywood, Santa Monica, downtown, and elsewhere in southern California going to concerts, museums, independent movie theaters and bookstores, and cooling off in the placid Pacific ocean, an inner peace comes over me that’s irreplaceable. It was the best liberal education I could have received… and I gave it to myself.
But back to the Senior Tree. Day after day, seniors stood underneath and around it, acting foolish while hatching plans for world conquest, commonly known as the path to success. Belief systems crystallized in conjunction with these plans, systems unalterable and impenetrable. I felt like I was living in a foreign land. All this preparation for the endless grind ahead made me queasy. I didn’t belong in that world. I understood I was going to have to work in some menial labor-intensive fashion, and I was okay with it. We all work to make other’s rich, if we’re not working for ourselves. At that point in my life I became aware that writing would be my release. It would make my particular ‘endless grind’ easier to swallow.
Meanwhile, I missed as much school as possible, graduating by two credits. That intentional calculation would prove to be the reigning accomplishment of my high school career.
Years later I’m in Virginia. The solitude has been life-changing, except for one thing. As I’ve matured I’ve seen that the Senior Tree has shape-shifted into a mysterious Dragon living in nearly everyone’s garage. It goes like this:
I’m walking through my neighborhood. It’s a delicate, cool morning with a touch of heat. The spring colors dazzle the eyes. About a block from home a regular looking Joe is standing on his driveway, doing nothing. He says hi.
“How’s it going?” I say.
“Good. Did you know I’ve got a fire-breathing Dragon in my garage?”
Instead of wishing him to have a nice day, I make the mistake of engaging him in dialog. I’m making an effort to be more a part of the human race, so in order to do that, I need to speak to the inhabitants from time to time. “Interesting. Can I have a look?”
He takes out his keys, presses a button, and the garage door goes up. There’s plenty to look at, but no Dragon in sight.
“”Where is it?” I ask, greatly anticipating his response.
“It’s right over there,” he says, pointing toward the door leading to the kitchen. “I forgot to tell you he’s an invisible Dragon.”
If that’s the case, I tell him, let’s spread flour on the floor to see if we can get footprints.
“That would work,” he says with disappointment, “but this Dragon floats in the air.”
“Well then, we’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.”
The man shakes his head. “His fire is heatless.”
I’m getting annoyed, and almost turn to go home. But I’m stupid, and press on. I point to the shelves on the wall. “I see you’ve got spray paint. Let’s spray around the door area and make him visible.”
“He lacks any material constitution. The paint won’t stick.”
“I think I left my oven on,” I say, walking briskly toward the safety of my front door and laugh. What’s the difference between an invisible, immaterial, floating Dragon who spits heatless fire, and no Dragon at all?