Musings and Mirth

Recommended Books on Humans – Where We Came From, Where We’re Going


I’ve read several books on the subject of human evolution in an attempt to solve the problem of where we’re going from here. Almost all of the books say the same basic things about our past, with some variation here or there. They all say the same thing about our future, with varying degrees of hope from “we’re totally fucked” to “we might be able to salvage ourselves by getting off the planet” to “we’ll have to invent some adaptations to survive.” Seems pretty dire, right? Apparently, we’ve evolved a trait that makes us all not freak out about what we know is coming. This inability to confront the reality of our alarming situation means we won’t do anything about those things. We’ll just keep on keeping on because that’s what humans do. We take and use as we please, with little regard to the consequences.

Our past can be summed up this way, give or take:

We shared a common ancestor, Homo heidelbergensis between 800 thousand to 1 million years ago. At some point, that ancestor migrated out of Africa and split off in two different directions. One branch became the Neanderthals roughly 200,000 years ago or so, and the other became the Denisovans.

Homo sapiens (our delightful species) also evolved from the common ancestor and roughly 40,000 years ago or so we migrated out of Africa and came upon both the Neanderthals and the Denisovans. We carry in us DNA from both of these human species yet both are considered extinct. There is some debate as to how their extinction came about. Did we obliterate them because we’re so horrible and that’s what we do? Or did we merge with them? Or did we out compete them for food? I’m guessing we destroyed them. I think we probably imprisoned or enslaved them (because that’s what we do, what we’ve done) and used some as sex slaves. That is an extreme hypothesis and one that could never be proven but where humans are concerned, always imagine the worst and work from there.

The combination of homo sapiens with neanderthal or denisovan genes eventually led to our great leap forward – around 30,000 years ago when we domesticated dogs and eventually horses and eventually domestic animals rather than kill. Up until we learned how to domesticate animals we hunted almost all creatures to near extinction. It’s horrifying the way each of these books lays that part of our history out. We just had no clue what we were destroying. And we still don’t.

Cut to – now. Here we are. There are a few factors that will lead to our destruction that we are simply not dealing with. We’re brewing a perfect storm that includes the following three factors:

  1. antibiotics in meat products, in rivers and streams (among other chemicals), oceans and even cosmetics. They have been used freely and often, lowering our resistance to the point where we will likely be taken out by some pandemic in the next two generations (see this Fresh Air interview). This is the thing that will weaken millions of us.
  2. population growth all over the world. The target is 11 billion that supposedly the planet cannot sustain. This could lead to mass starvation, world wars — who knows what else.
  3. climate change, or warming. Another potentially weakening factor that will harm farming all over the world. We won’t stop meat and dairy production so we can’t possibly turn around greenhouse gases. Even if we stopped right now we would only be able to stop the clock about 30%. We’ve been doing this since the 1900s and we’re on a path to total warming so that either the planet will warm to an unlivable temperature (we’d have to go underground or into space) and remain that way for thousands of years, or else it will flip and we’ll head into an ice age. The only thing people agree on is that this shit is going down and we have to act now.

Put all three of them together and you can imagine that things don’t look too good for people. What can we do? We can try to act to make our politicians turn to wind and solar (all republicans think climate change is a hoax), stop eating meat and dairy as much as possible, even if it’s once a week – the market will determine how much meat is produced. Drive a hybrid or don’t drive at all.

Anyway, if you want to know, and you probably don’t, here are some books to read:

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Driving with Emma  – Talking about Extinction

Driving with Emma – Talking about Extinction

Since we moved I’ve had to drive Emma to school every morning and every afternoon, which takes about an hour. At first I was annoyed. Interstate five is overcrowded with cargo trucks rattling down the congested highway, beater cars cutting in front of you every quarter mile. This part of the valley is an armpit in many ways. It took me a while to figure out that my daughter was about to graduate high school and this might be the last time I have to spend any kind of quality time with her. We could have ridden silently the way we used to through most of her growing up. Me lost in NPR and she with her headphones on chatting on some godforsaken millennial social network. But we just started talking about things. Whatever was the subject for the day, whether it was the upcoming election, or global warming, or the upcoming mass extinction or even mundane things like what it’s like to drive a car, what’s like to live as an adult and what it’s like to fall in love.

My daughter, I’ve come to find, is a bright, compassionate young woman who is actually fun to talk to – she has a lot to say, as it turns out, and not the kind of stuff you listen to politely because you’re talking to someone who is way too young to get it. No, she’s really fun to talk to. She’s learned so much in high school – what we both agree is the ‘9th circle of hell.’ She’s just taken human evolution in one of her AP classes and now we have that to talk about too. She has my skeptical mind, as it turns out, and is not a magical thinker. This makes it much easier for me to chat with her since I don’t have to keep my skepticism – which is a real downer for most people – in check.

Since I’ve been writing a book (a novel, actually) that takes place 100 years in the future, I decided to do some research into what things might look like then. I guess what I thought I’d find out was that the sea level might rise, a few species would be wiped out – but would we still be here? Would we reach 11 billion on earth, that number that isn’t sustainable? Would our overpopulation then turn into some mass catastrophe that would wipe us out. Those things I kind of expected to find from scientists. I didn’t expect to learn so much about human beings – or rather, homosapiens, our past and our bleak looking future. See, we’re developing science faster than anyone could have predicted but we’re killing every other living thing. Those things we aren’t killing we’re torturing in factory farms. So what good will it be to live longer if we’re not going to be living better? What was even more surprising to find out is that we’ve always been this way. Even when we were supposedly peaceful natives we were wiping out land animals on our endless quest for more meat to eat. This has always been the homosapien way.

With each new book I read about evolution and the potential future of mankind the more alarmed I became. I could not understand why this isn’t a bigger deal among people. So many are living in their cloistered realm of happiness seeking because that is what we’re taught to do. But we’re not playing the long game. We’re not even close. We can’t even convince many people that our impact on the environment is accelerating the greenhouse gas effect that has played a part in mass extinctions in the past. Humans didn’t invent the greenhouse gas effect. We’re just making it go faster than it would otherwise and in so doing we have become the sixth extinction. All of the scientists say humans are adaptable and we’ll likely survive this mass extinction. But some say we won’t survive unless we (eventually) get off the planet we’ve rendered uninhabitable.

I guess finding all of this out from the scientific community – not from hokey Facebook memes – freaked me out more than a little. Worse, I started wondering what the point of any of it is. Why build anything, why make anything, why write anything, why endure? Well, because that is what we do. As terrible as savage as we are, as stupid and selfish and indulgent we are, there is always the chance that our highly developed brains will stop us before nature stops us. There is always that chance. While that chance is there we have to pretend that life really is worth living.

Our endless quest for meat that has wiped out 2/3 of the land mammals and is the cause of much abuse, pollution and harm is the very thing that will be our demise. If we all stopped eating meat or dropped our consumption considerably we could at least start to slow the warming. I don’t see any signs so far that people will. No, the answer is to assume we’re headed in the worst case scenario and to plan accordingly.

Don’t worry, I don’t tell my daughter my worst fears about life. We do talk about the good things she has coming. And those will be many. In 100 years I hope that someone, somewhere has helped turn it all around. Until then, it’s time to party like it’s 1999.

Free the Nipple is not Empowerment or Equality; it’s Narcissism

Free the Nipple is not Empowerment or Equality; it’s Narcissism

Of all the ways I feel frustration as a woman and a feminist none of it has come quite as close as this nonsense “movement” called Free the Nipple. It’s really generated by girls who want to show their boobies on Instagram because they’re NOT ALLOWED. They’ve actually mobilized, gotten Miley Cyrus to sing the song and there is even some kind of movie in the works. First off, there is nothing American men would like more than to oggle the boobies of young women on Instagram. That Instagram won’t let them is nothing to cry about. It is not a movement worth fighting for and all it really amounts to is women wanting to take more pictures of themselves so that people will continue to look at them. What a sorry ass pathetic state of affairs.

This, at the same time actresses like Shailene Woodley and Evangeline Lilly go on and on about how they’re “feminists” because “feminists” want to “be like men.” For fuck’s sake – how can a whole generation be packed with so many stupid role models?

So here’s a list of things they COULD care about and actually do some good in the world — like:
Cleaning up the giant blobs of plastic in our oceans
Overturning Citizens United
Advocating for Choice so that abortion does not become illegal
Helping to end factory farming which is altering our climate and making our environment ultimately inhospitable.
Hanging out with dying kids in hospitals
Fighting corporations that lie to Americans about how they should be on drugs all of the time.

Those are just some suggestions. Stop making women look stupid with Free the Nipple. We are smarter than that. We are better than that.

And by the way, here’s a little tip. Women draw much of their power from their sexuality. Much of that is the allure of the female breast. Take that away and there goes some major leverage. Think about it.

The Serial Podcast Became an Obsession, Then Just Made me Feel Hollow

The Serial Podcast has become a major obsession but really, for all the wrong reasons. It has brought out the typical sleuthing mob that all too often mobilizes bored people on the internet with too much access to research materials at their fingertips. This was what happened to many of us (myself included) during the Boston bombing manhunt, and it happened during True Detective, where the desire for there to be a much bigger conspiracy took over the actual plot of the series. And now, it’s overtaken the case of Hae Min Lee and the efforts of the Sayed family to have their son, Adnan Sayed, freed prison for the death of his ex-girlfriend.

The reason is the podcast itself, an excellent work of sometimes objective and sometimes subjective journalism by Sarah Koenig as an offshoot of This American Life. It has brought up so many things during its run, including what most Americans think about Muslims in the post 9/11 world, immigrant parents who shelter their kids from everything to ensure their success in America, teen love, teen crime, friendships, and of course the facts of the case – cell phone records, witness testimony, a now diseased defense attorney who was found to be deliberately throwing cases to make more and more money off the desperate families paying for her services.

The podcast at first takes the stance that its subject, Adnan Syed, could possibly be innocent of the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. Adnan is a sympathetic subject. He seems like the nicest, sweetest guy who would never hurt anyone. But the problem is — and Koenig admits this if you listen very carefully to what she’s saying and how she says it — the facts of the case do not seem to leave room for reasonable doubt. Reasonable doubt in the court sense probably should have gotten Adnan off back in 1999. It seems that the only thing they had on him was the testimony of his friend Jay and cell phone record of his being in Leakin Park where the body was found the night she went missing.

But every piece of hope that Sarah Koenig — or as we refer to her on Reddit SK — turns up ends to not be good for Adnan. The alibi witness says she remembered seeing Adnan in the library on the day Hae went missing. But she remembers it because it was snowing really hard – the first snow of the year she said. There was no school the next day. The problem is that the weather report says it didn’t snow that day. The witness must have been thinking of another day.

Could the cell phone records be false? Well, no, the producers sent the records to the top specialists in the field and they said it was valid. Adnan says you couldn’t leave school, murder someone in roughly 20 minutes. SK and her producer drove the route and found that they could, in fact, make it. They were cutting it close but they made it.

As we went along, chattering away about is he guilty or isn’t he – the most recent episode was revealed. It was called rumors and it not only talked about what some people remember about Adnan but it also revealed how much it bothered him that everything has been dug up and on such a public scale. Adnan is in prison and now he’s famous. Jay, the witness in the case, is now famous. Hae’s family’s tragedy has now become famous.

There is no way SK and her crew thought in a million years Serial would become this popular. No other podcast has ever come anywhere close to being this popular. This last episode, though, with Adnan’s desperate voice to want it all over with left me with a feeling of ickyness. I just felt bad about it – why were we treating this whole thing as entertainment? It isn’t a TV show – it’s real life.

At first I couldn’t stop thinking about, listening to it, googling to find to find clues whether there was a payphone at the Best Buy in Baltimore, MD in 1999. But after the last episode this feeling of being too close to a murder started to creep in. We’re talking about the unimaginable here. It is deeper and scarier than fiction.

On Robin Williams and Depression

On Robin Williams and Depression

“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”
― David Foster Wallace

“Others imply that they know what it is like to be depressed because they have gone through a divorce, lost a job, or broken up with someone. But these experiences carry with them feelings. Depression, instead, is flat, hollow, and unendurable. It is also tiresome. People cannot abide being around you when you are depressed. They might think that they ought to, and they might even try, but you know and they know that you are tedious beyond belief: you are irritable and paranoid and humorless and lifeless and critical and demanding and no reassurance is ever enough. You’re frightened, and you’re frightening, and you’re “not at all like yourself but will be soon,” but you know you won’t.”
― Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind

“No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won’t hurt”
― Hunter S. Thompson

“Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.”
― Virginia Woolf

I can’t pretend to understand the kind of depression people talk about. The kind that is a disease. The kind you can do nothing about, the drug companies say, except take drugs to make you feel normal. I don’t understand because on some fundamental level I reject the notion that drugs are the cure for this. At the same time I don’t judge – how could I – a person who is in so much pain they want out of this world. That, I understand. I understand flat misery. I understand wallowing in and accepting the futility of it all, the worthlessness of human life on earth. I understand having good reasons to be depressed. I feel like – if you look around the world and see what it REALLY is you would naturally be depressed or else so heavily medicated or self-absorbed you don’t notice anything except that which affects you directly.

I understand our living contrary to our nature. I understand how Facebook and Twitter can be the most depressing thing you will interact with all day. I can understand grief. I understand deep loneliness. I understand hating yourself for not living up to anyone’s expectations, least of all, your own.

I understand where Robin Williams was coming from. But the thing is, for me, once you have a kid that option is taken from you. That, and the knowledge that this is all we have, this life. There is a part of me that is waiting to see how everything turns out. Another part that wants to help change things for the better. Still another part that wants to leave a lasting contribution to humanity. All of these things Robin Williams did tenfold. He helped make the world a better place. He left a lasting contribution. He had beautiful children he loved and women he devoured. His was a full and complete life. All that was left was what could remain in his career and many days watching things slow way down, feeling the body grow weaker, wait for life to TAKE YOU instead of you making the choice to end it in your own way.

For me the only lure of suicide is the idea that you, me, we could die any time. Literally, we could go any minute in a variety of ways both sublime and mundane. Williams had heart surgery – hard core, debilitating surgery that certainly would have given him a clue as to how close he is to the end. Remember when Tony Scott took a jump off that bridge and killed himself and no one knew why? Middled aged white men are the highest demographic for suicide and half of me wonders if it isn’t just a logical solution to hurrying up the inevitable once there is nothing left to live for.

I guess, in the end, I can’t quite get there. Not yet. Not with a young daughter just graduating high school. Not with so many Stephen King books left to read. Not with all of the people I love so dearly and owe my time and torture to because they are here, they are young, and they have lives to lead. No, I would probably take massive amounts of drugs if I thought I was close to killing myself.

That kid, remember that kid in that documentary who killed himself so young? He’d wanted to from such a young age. He just wanted to die. I don’t get that. I could try and understand vis a vis medicating people and kids TOO YOUNG. But I don’t think that is a thorough explanation.

What we do know about suicide? It’s been around a while. A long while. Attitudes towards it have changed. We live longer now than we ever have before and therefore value our lives more. But still, the dark promise of nothingness? Isn’t that what we live in fear of every day? I do. I can’t imagine staring down that big sleep. I wish I could live forever.

My life is half over. I’m almost 50 years old. My hair is starting to get grey. Fat likes to gather in my mid-section. Other than that, and some age spots, I’m in pretty good shape. I figure if I don’t die of some terrible awful mundane event – like choking on peanuts, getting electrocuted by a hair drying or, god forbid, lightning, or get shot, or get in a car accident – the dreaded thing — a place crash (egods) – then I’m most likely to die of a heart attack probably nearing the age of 70. That gives me 30 more years. My daughter would then be 46. That is still too young to lose her mother so I hope to tack on another 20 from 70. It is my hope that by the time the end comes, like Lauren Bacall’s 89, I will feel too tired to stay on earth another day and the big sleep will come at me like a relief.

I love everything about the life I have now. I have very little regrets — if I had to name them it would be the times I believed men who were liars. That’s the hard part. They wasted my time. My precious time that I can’t have back. Tell the truth, always, even if it’s painful. Don’t spare someone their feelings because you waste their time.

The worst thing about Robin Williams’ death is that he leaves the door of suicide open to so many out there. It isn’t his fault nor his obligation, of course, to suffer his pain for other people but children of suicide victims are much more likely to commit suicide, for instance. But his children were so loving in their reactions it proved what a mensch he was in life and then in death. He just wanted out. A clean out. To end the misery. On some level they seemed to understand that. He was a good egg, plain and simple and it seems as though everyone he touched understood that. The last thing his final act seemed, to me, was selfish. He probably had no other option at that point. The wolf was at the door.

It is the goodness in us that we still want to reach out and grab him before he goes, to beg him, to hold him, to plead with him not to go. You see, we are really the selfish ones. We want him back. Everyone is dying. All the time, every minute. We have to say goodbye to everyone we know some time. No matter how we do it it always hurts.

I can’t help but think any minute he’s going to jump back and say “just kidding!” He makes me want to believe in Neverland.

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About Me

I spend way too much thinking about me. This is the blank space where that paragraph should be.