Category Archives: Power

Of Finite Appetites

Today I was listening to a provocative episode of The Anxious Achiever about professional envy. The specific context was consulting – how to differentiate one’s business coaching services and attract enough clients to make a living in an oversaturated market. The discussion delved into several aspects of professional envy, but the problem of markets is what I want to focus on here. Before interviewing her guest, Nihar Chhaya, host Mora Aarons-Mele invoked a metaphor that catapulted me right back to a 2015 writing conference:

There’s always more pie.

When I first heard this metaphor, I was eager for assurance that my amateur work had the potential to break through the glut of writing on the market(s). The presenter at the writing conference who insisted that “you can always make more pie” said this in good faith, as an encouraging reframe: Instead of worrying about the relative size of your slice, she reasoned, just make another pie!

I love pie. I swallowed it whole.

In the years since, I’ve grown suspicious of this metaphor. Roaming the tables at the AWP bookfair the very next year, I stopped at a friend’s booth and noted that everyone was trying to sell their writing to people who were trying to sell them their writing. The market seemed so insular. So delusional. “Look at me!” we all cried, most of us in vain. That is the nature of industry trade shows, I suppose, not to mention professional organizations. When we restrict ourselves to promoting within these markets, insularity is endemic. While not exactly fixed markets (as represented by people like myself, who were new to AWP) only the proverbial rock-stars stand out, make a living.

Sure, we can make more pie. But who is going to eat it?

The humble pie metaphor is an unintentional scam. Even if we succeed in venturing beyond our fields of practice, what becomes of our wares? Appetites are not infinite. While I’m all for adopting a worldview of abundance, we live within a capitalist system that thrives on the idea of scarcity. For writing, for services, for goods, there are limits on three key resources:

  • Time
  • Attention
  • Money

Let’s hone in on that last one. There is abundance, yes. But most of us cannot access it. Instead, the pies we make get smaller as we compete for more and more limited ingredients. So the question becomes: how do we unlock the abundance? Establishing a niche in an “untapped” market only gets you so far, since the resources within those markets are systematically being siphoned off and stored in the coffers of the ultra-rich.

It’s appropriate that in a world created by extractive capitalism, we must find ways to extract wealth from the hoarders who have benefitted from this economic system so the rest of us no longer have to struggle to survive in scarcity. Taxation, as a strategy for redistributing wealth and providing public services, has been effectively neutered in the United States, and philanthropy further consolidates power with those who are evading taxes, as they get to decide where their extracted (largely untaxed) wealth will be distributed. Thus the public ceases to exist, in that we are all overlapping categories of need, hands outstretched to benevolent philanthropists and underfunded government agencies, hoping that our needs will be sexy enough to attract whatever fraction of resources the wealthy deign to share.

The tension between scarcity and abundance will eventually break. Only then will there be enough people to eat all the pies we’ll be baking, if we can find ways to reap the ingredients.

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Filed under Contemporary, Power

Buht Wat Abowt Teh MENS?!

While perusing the Princeton University Press Anthropology catalog, I came across a book that induced such an extreme Liz Lemon eye-roll that I’m just now getting un-stuck.

Orange book cover with a white man walking - left half black and white, right half color

This may as well be called Old White Men: In Case You Forgot, We’re Really Important! Sure, we may have power over the entire species, but when you consider our deep-seated anxiety about our perceived dwindling power and cultural relevance, we don’t feel quite as on top as we assume we should be. Our supremacy is the natural order of things, after all!

The description of the book includes the phrase “how older men may have contributed to the evolution of some of the very traits that make us human.” UGH.

Old White Men: the unmarked category BECAUSE SCIENCE.

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Filed under Contemporary, Gender Trouble, Power

Positivism, History, and Optimism: NPR’s 13.7 on the Endurance of Scientific Knowledge

“Religious repression and wars pass, but scientific knowledge remains.”

So goes theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser’s argument in a recent opinion piece on NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos & Culture blog. To which I thought:

Not necessarily.

Knowledge can be suppressed, corrupted, or simply lost. In one of the latter (lesser?) books of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, a character describes the problem of chronicling millennia of human history. In short, you can’t preserve everything. Choices are always made. Topics fall out of vogue. Those in power can produce countering knowledge, or bury unfavorable information. Even the most meticulous archivists, following the most stringent of professional standards, are guided by prevailing cultural assumptions about what is worth saving.

Later in the blog post, Gleiser writes:

“Kepler witnessed the state collapsing around him, and felt helpless. He couldn’t pick up a sword to fight, for he was a hero of ideas and not of bloody battles. Instead, he looked up. And so did Galileo. And what they saw, and their diligence in pursuing the truth, changed the world forever.”

How can one make such an eternal claim? For someone who lauds the scientific method and the “objective” power of observation so heartily, this is quite the leap of faith.

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Filed under Contemporary, Historical, Media, Power

Autumn Chill

The October night is mine to fill. My parents have long since gone to bed with our cat, who knows something is wrong. I’m left alone with my paperback copy of Never Let Me Go, purchased yesterday during our weekly trip to Costco. Never have I been so invested in a fictional friendship. I let the drama absorb me; it’s an effective distraction from the death that looms outside.

Autumn lies on the top step of the stoop. Once a swift jumble of insatiable canine exuberance, tonight she is quiet and still. The cool concrete seems to give her 13-year-old body some relief. A year ago Autumn was overweight for a shepherd-lab mutt her size. The growth in her lung that announced its presence in March has siphoned away much of her muscle, leaving a scrawny, dull-eyed creature whose every breath seems to cost effort she doesn’t have to spare.

It’s brisk outside. I put down my book and rise from the couch, opening the heavy wooden screen door to check on her. This is the third or fourth time I’ve done so tonight. It is a ritual I will reenact on several evenings before we let her leave us.

“Do you want to come inside, baby girl?”

Autumn does not raise her head at the sound of my voice. I crouch and lay a hand on her greying brow. We have to be gentle; sometimes she flinches when we pet her. I watch her ribs rise and fall under the mottled brown coat that inspired her name.

The humans in the family have realized that we should take her to the vet for the last time. We’re still not sure when. No one wants to decide. Soon is too close to now, even as now extends her decline. We’re watching her, waiting for a definitive sign, but Autumn doesn’t give us one. She simply fades, often imperceptibly. Eating less, sleeping more, weighing less, hurting more. There is no marker, no metaphorical cliff over which she can fall to let us know that the time, her time, has arrived.

We cannot discuss this with her. We do not ask, Have you suffered enough? Do you want to die? When should we kill you? but we have taken it upon ourselves to answer for her.

Inside, Ishiguro’s codependent characters await reactivation. They will endure intimate betrayals and paradigm-shifting revelations under my watchful gaze until one character enables the others to slowly disconnect from life. Even fictional mercy requires consent.

I stroke Autumn’s torso, my palm barely grazing her. We look into each other’s eyes and she seems to sigh. I tug her collar and again suggest that she come indoors, lay on her soft bed, let the cat cuddle close.

She won’t move.

Unwilling to wait, to be with her stillness, I stand and return to the house, to the couch, to the book whose ending is probably as dismal as our family’s current reality. How long do we let her endure this lessened life? Even after we make the call, we won’t know.

Autumn never tells us.

The essay above is a dispatch from 2010, written for a 2016 creative nonfiction class.

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Filed under Animals, Power

Poetic Interlude: Fractured Futures, née YWCA

Light aqua arch surrounding an inset wooden door of the same color

refracted reflections

bourgeois boutique

peeling possibilities

embattled emblem


Context:

May, 2017

April, 2017

August, 2016

June, 2013

Atlas Obscura

City of Pasadena, Planning & Community Development

Pasadena Heritage

 

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Filed under Art of all Kinds, Contemporary, Historical, Nostalgia, Power, Wordplay