Fear

Fear and “MAX A/C”

WARNING: The word “sh*t” (shit) appears in this essay 11 times.

There’s a setting on my car’s air conditioner called “MAX A/C,” and it’s freaking me out.

It’s also making me rethink my attitude to life, but more on that later.

The immediate problem with MAX A/C is that I just don’t know what it does. The context does not provide clues. It’s not on the fan dial or the temperature dial. If it was on either of these, one could reasonably presume that it indicates the highest fan speed or coldest temperature. But no, it’s on the same dial that lets you select which vents the air’s gonna come out of, which doesn’t make any sense.

This vent-choosing dial has all the time-honored traditional settings, referring to which part of your body/car needs to have conditioned air shot at it:

  1. Head
  2. Head and Foot
  3. Just Foot
  4. Defrost and also Foot
  5. Straight-up Defrost

And then, all the way to the left, there’s MAX A/C. Which raises the question, What is MAX A/C a maximum of? The choices on the vent dial are not quantitative—they don’t go from least (min) to most (max). Does it mean the air’s gonna fire out of all vents? (In which case, it seems like it would have been simple enough to draw a schematic indicating “Head and Foot plus Defrost,” but is that really “max”? Wouldn’t that just diffuse the force of the air?) Is it going to open some heretofore unknown, secret vent that shoots air right down the back of your neck? Does it engage a fan speed higher or temperature colder than the fan and temperature dials are willing to admit is even possible? Does it divert power from the forward thrusters?

The dial in question, with mystery setting.
The dial in question, with mystery setting.

My wife and I both drive Kias, so we both have the MAX A/C setting. I never use it. Context: we live in Arizona, where we reach for our cardigans when the temperature dips below 100. I figure if MAX A/C is some sort of panic setting more powerful than just turning the fan and temperature dials all the way up (down?), then it should be reserved for conditions of man-the-battlestations extreme heat.

Put it this way: if you use MAX A/C when it’s 105 degrees out, where you gonna go when it’s 115? You’ve already brought out the big guns! You have no bigger guns! You fool!

My wife uses MAX A/C pretty much by default. 92 degrees out? MAX A/C. 112 degrees out? MAX A/C. Totally reckless! She’s busting into her emergency rations when there are still berries to forage and critters to hunt!

But here’s another thing about my wife: she gets shit done. Granted, sometimes—s o m e t i m e s . . . the wrong shit gets done. OR: maybe the shit gets done in maybe not THE absolute best way possible. But, really, nine times out of ten, it’s fine, and it was just the getting the shit done that really counted and that, really, saved the day in the end.

Me? I agonize. About getting the shit done in the best way possible, or about the best time to get the shit done, or about which shit should get done first, or about getting some mental space to just . . . wrap my brain around the details of the shit what needs doing. And agonize about what it says about me that I agonize about doing said shit, in an infinite feedback loop that is not nearly as much fun as it sounds.

So here’s the thing: I make fun of my wife for going straight to MAX A/C without even giving “mid” A/C a try. But! I’m beginning to think that her ability to get shit done is somehow linked to her ability to damn the torpedoes and say “Gimme everything you got, A/C! I’m [somewhat] hot now, not at some imagined future time when I may be hotter!”

Conversely, my inability to get things done may be linked to my constant anticipation of the invevitable future time when EVERYTHING WILL GO WRONG.

Because there is so much that can go wrong in life. It’s a part-time job keeping up with it all. For example:

  • Cancer
  • Home invasion
  • The abduction of my children through their bedroom window
  • Any nice thing I buy myself being the thing that sends my family into bankruptcy
  • Bankrupty-caused homelessness
  • Having to live somewhere very unpleasant due to bankruptcy
  • Cancer
  • Being on a hike and losing my shoes somehow
  • Being on a trip and losing my glasses
  • Being locked outside when it’s really cold, naked somehow, possibly as a form of mafia-related torture
  • Plane crash
  • Ghosts
  • Someone breaking into our house and stealing our laptops
  • Cancer
  • The collapse of civilization
  • Being really hot in the car and not being able to make it cooler

In other words, my wife, in the words of Ram Dass, “is here now.” (Be’s here now? Does be here now? She lives in the moment, is what I’m trying to say). I, on the other hand, be in an imagined catastrophic future where everything goes to hell.

Now, I’m not saying I’m gonna start using MAX A/C—I’m not that crazy! But: next time I feel the urge to smile condescendingly at my wife’s rash use of MAX A/C, perhaps I’ll stop and consider: who’s spending the present moment simply driving to her next destination, and who’s spending his present moment in his head, running away, shoeless, from cancer-ghosts who want to steal his children/laptop?

Inventions that Made Things Worse: Agriculture

Not a joke: humans have been around in some shape or form for 200,000 years. We’ve been farming for about five percent of that time. So it could just be a phase we’re going through—maybe we’ll grow out of it. But in case we don’t, let’s make it clear: agriculture was a mistake.

Before agriculture, we humans were lithe, muscular, confident, sexy creatures (brow ridges and massive jaws notwithstanding). We had to be; we spent all our time cruising the savannah or jungle or whatever looking for fresh meat and good plants to eat—basically, exercising and eating paleo, but without acting all superior about it. And we had to be quick and sharp-witted in order to avoid falling prey to cave bears and giant sloths and saber-toothed cats and whatnot. And guess what: if you reached puberty and were still alive? It was because YOU KNEW HOW TO HANDLE THAT SHIT.

Cool hunter-gatherers with killer pecs and abs.

And what were we doing during the considerable amount of time during which we weren’t hunting or gathering or making tools? Straight chillin’. Dancing, exploring caves, making art, hanging out, shootin’ the breeze, having sex. WHATEVS.

Then some genius invented agriculture and we all turned into anxious nerds.

For one thing, as soon as agriculture began, all the predators high-fived each other because now they knew where to find us EVERY SINGLE DAY. You know, the place with all the free food that stays still? This is how agriculture originally divided the world into “us”—people, here, behind this fence with our special food: our plants we don’t have to travel to and prey that can’t run away—and “them”—all the freeloading animals who are trying to get at our special food.

Uptight, flabby farmers.

We basically turned to the other animals and said “OKAY GUYS THIS IS MY STUFF DON’T ANYBODY TOUCH MY STUFF.” The other animals were like WTF? and naturally commenced to raiding our lovingly curated crops and cattle. We were like, “Seriously?” and put up fences and laid traps and invented possibly the stupidest invention of all time, the scarecrow (“Pffft. Not scary. No stars. Would raid again.” –crows) and said “GUYS WE’RE SAVING THIS TO EAT LATER! NO TOUCHY!” And the animals were like “Dude, that’s not how it works!” and we were like “Well, that’s how it’s gonna work from now on. [Adjusts glasses and turns back to chalkboard with complex equations on it.] Let’s see now, if I plant this many acres with soybeans . . .”

And so humans and the rest of the animals drifted apart and now when we see each other at the zoo or whatever, it’s all awkward.

I believe it was the anonymous author of “Wikipedia” who put it so succinctly when she wrote

Agriculture allowed for the support of an increased population, leading to larger societies and eventually the development of cities. It also created the need for greater organization of political power (and the creation of social stratification), as decisions had to be made regarding labor and harvest allocation and access rights to water and land. Agriculture bred immobility, as populations settled down for long periods of time, which led to the accumulation of material goods.

Ugh, right? Within this paragraph, I can count the following universally despised things for the existence of which we can blame agriculture:

  • Large groups of other people
  • Cities, including Fort Lauderdale (and, by extension, traffic, traffic cops, and urban sprawl)
  • Politicians
  • Bureaucracy
  • Rich people
  • Poverty
  • Work
  • Landlords
  • Mortgages
  • Lawyers
  • “Couch potato” syndrome (and, by extension, “exercise”)
  • Clutter/hoarding

The invention of agriculture was such a colossal, traumatic mistake, it made it into the Bible, as the ORIGINAL SIN. It’s the story of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden to toil and sweat and till the earth. It’s the primal fuck-up that sent us from enjoying an Earthly paradise of innocence and ease to a life of hard work, pain, and shame.

It was such a harsh consequence that, later, God looked down at humanity and said, “Jesus Christ, look at those poor neurotic farming bastards. I feel sorry for them. Maybe I was too harsh kicking them out of Eden.”

And Jesus Christ said, “Don’t worry, Dad, I’ll go down and sort them out.”

So Jesus came down and told everybody to chill out and get rid of their belongings and not worry so much about clothes and food and stuff and live in the moment be like a lily in the field—basically be more like a hunter-gatherer.

But it was too late, humanity was too far gone. As soon as Jesus left, they turned around and said, “Alright, you heard Jesus, NO MORE GAY SEX! Now back to your farming!” and that was that.

But, like I said, in the history of humanity, agriculture is still just a blip. In fact, it could have a built-in time limit, as more and more of the things that agriculture has made possible turn out to be ecologically unsustainable. When civilization collapses, we’ll be too busy fighting off roving gangs of cannibals and running from warlord-led militias to tend to our chickens and kale. But on the other hand, we’ll probably get some sweet abs out of it.

Flying saucer attack.

The Third Sex

When the aliens came, at first everyone was relieved, because they weren’t very different from us. At all. They were almost indistinguishable from humans. They looked like us. They had comparable intelligence; they had comparable intraspecies variation. They learned our languages quickly. They laughed, they cried, they had the same hopes and dreams, foibles, strengths, and weaknesses. Only they were a little bigger (the absolute shortest ones were about six feet), a little stronger, a little more assertive. They were slightly more advanced technically. The way they achieved interplanetary travel, when they explained it, was met by Earth’s scientists and engineers with a collective forehead slap. Of course! they said. Why didn’t we think of that?

The biggest difference was in sex. They had genitalia, but it was different. It was nothing that you could call male or female by Earth standards, but it was compatible with both—they could go both ways. They could be very attractive to humans, in a decidedly androgynous way—any one of them could make a convincing male or female, depending on how you looked at them—but they themselves were generally attracted to men.

One of the biggest causes of relief among humans was that the aliens didn’t seem to have come to conquer the Earth. They laughed helplessly when they saw our alien-invasion sci-fi films. They really seemed just curious, and they liked the Earth. They had new, helpful ideas regarding some of Earth’s most intractable problems. They wanted to live here, if it was okay with us. They were different. And they were so helpful, so handy to have around, and seemed so sure of themselves—like it was a done deal that they would live here and that it would be great—that the humans found it hard to say no to them.

But, of course, eventually, they did start to take over. Their little advantages in terms of height, assertiveness, etc., helped them move into positions of power, and because they were attracted to men, they often married into power. It didn’t take more than two or three generations for the aliens to take the best jobs, many of the most powerful positions, and the lion’s share of the wealth. It was generally assumed that they were smarter, more rational, more capable (after all, they had come here in spaceships of their own construction) and they were more valued in the labor market.

Because of their imposing confidence, their wealth and connections, and their fresh, intergalactic perspective, they also came to dominate cultural fields. They were the most celebrated writers, filmmakers, musicians, chefs, etc., and naturally, the culture began to center around them and their experiences. And of course, nearly all sports became focused on competition between aliens (since they had inherent physical advantages, it was natural that they should compete separately, among themselves).

Their attraction to human males became more pronounced and entrenched in the culture, and men found themselves objects of desire in a way they had never experienced outside of gay culture. Male beauty—particularly of the more petite or delicate variety—was enshrined in fine art and called out in the street. It saturated the media, where men who were plain or ugly or old or just too big were either absent or ridiculed.

And because the path to a better life was flanked by aliens, men found themselves going out of their way to be pleasing to the aliens, many of whom they genuinely liked. Or loved. Or lusted for. But they also found themselves resenting them, and hating them, and feeling uneasy about their sometimes-unwanted, occasionally violent attention.

And the Earth men looked at the Earth women and said, Okay, I get it, I totally get it.

Inventions that Made Things Worse: The Handkerchief

Full disclosure: I’m not really sure how people use handkerchiefs, or how they came to be, nor did I research the subject. I base the following on hints from old movies, my own thought experiments, and just plain horse-sense.

I imagine that, before handkerchiefs, people did that thing where you hold one nostril and exhale forcefully out the other nostril so that your snot and mucus flies out and lands on my shoe. Disgusting? Oh, yes. Did it effectively sever all relations between you and your excess mucus? Pretty much. This seems like the kind of thing people would have done in more honest, earthy, revolting times like the middle ages and the Renaissance.

Then came the Enlightenment, when Europeans discovered the power of logic and reason to guide human affairs. Everybody went around going “Aha! Now I see!” And what they saw was that they really should be dressing WAY fancier than they were. The ruling classes of Europe experienced a series of startling epiphanies regarding stockings, frills, lace, elaborate wigs, face powder, and drawn-on beauty marks. Also: clothes for women became fancier.

An enlightened person.

I imagine it was around this time that someone even fancier and with even greater delicacy than his fellows came up with what is basically fancy clothing for your snot.

Pierre: [Blows snot out his nose]

Gaspard: I say, Pierre, are you still shooting the snot out of your nose?

Pierre: But of course! Why? What do you suggest I should do?

Gaspard: Here, try one of these. It’s my own invention; I call it the “handkerchief.”

Pierre: It is beautiful, but I don’t understand.

Gaspard: Blow your snot into it.

Pierre: [Does so.] Ugh! Now what?

Gaspard: Why, put it in your pocket! It is what an Enlightened gentleman would do.

Pierre: Ugh. Okay, I guess.

Gaspard: Then, you can use it to polish your glasses or wipe away a lady’s tears.

Pierre: [Looks at the camera.]

That is how people started going around with collections of their own snot in their pockets. Everyone was pretty much miserable about the whole thing, but social pressure kept them from going back to the practice of snot-shooting. Handkerchief manufacturers prospered and grew fat and sent their children to expensive colleges, keeping the lucrative secret of how handkerchiefs are made well guarded and adding innovations such as monogramming, so everyone would know whose snot was whose. The non-snot-shooting world was in the grip of the global handkerchief trust, also known as “Big Handkerchief.”

Then, sometime in the 1950s, an enterprising young man named Arthur Kleenex had a brainwave: he saw a way to simultaneously address two separate problems: that handkerchiefs were gross and that there were altogether too many trees. (At the time, trees were thought to compete with humans for oxygen—hence the public health campaign “Fewer Trees: More Fresh Air!” Today, of course, science has proven that to be an old wives’ tale, and we know that trees actually protect us from the tiny trolls who try to steal our breath in the night while we sleep.)

By converting the trees into flimsy, disposable handkerchiefs, Mr. Kleenex made his fortune and forever changed the face of nose-blowing in America, freeing people from the necessity of carrying around wads of their own mucus swaddled in linen.

But, as Bob Dylan said, freedom isn’t free. Today, we are consuming trees at unprecedented rates to feed our global Kleenex addiction. So we must always bear in mind that the cost of liberty from handkerchief thralldom is eternal vigilance against breath-stealing night-trolls.

“So, You Think You Can Take on Your Old Man?” or, Killing Your Father: Why Obi-Wan Let Down His Defenses

“Why did Obi-Wan let his defenses down when he was fighting Darth Vader?”

Luca, my six-year-old, asked me this at dinner the other night, and it’s been preoccupying me since. The more I think about it, the more important the question seems to understanding the themes of Star Wars. It’s a pivotal moment in the movie, and in the entire original trilogy, with repercussions that reach back to the subsequent prequel trilogy.

One way to talk about it is negatively: what would have happened if Obi Wan hadn’t dropped his defenses? Obi-Wan knows that fighting Darth Vader is unavoidable, thus he has two choices: kill Darth Vader or be killed by Darth Vader. What would happen if Obi-Wan were to kill Darth Vader at this point? Would it change much? No. The Emperor would simply seek out—and, considering his vast resources and power, most likely take—Luke as his new Sith Lord. As it plays out, had Darth Vader been killed, he would not have been there to save Luke from the Emperor when the latter was attempting to kill him with Force lightning.

There is also the fact that the duel plays out in view of the young Luke and is certain to make a deep impression on him. It’s important for Obi-Wan to model the actions of a true Jedi. Killing Darth Vader would convey the idea that fighting to avoid death and killing if necessary are the most important considerations when one is facing an opponent—a conventional idea, but not necessarily one that reflects a deep understanding of the Force.

On the other hand, to be killed by Darth Vader would simply gratify Darth Vader’s anger and hatred, at the same time inspiring anger and the desire for revenge in Luke. It would foster a host of unhelpful emotions.

What Obi-Wan does is find a third way, a synthesis beyond and superior to killing and being killed that is as profound a statement of the series’ themes as we ever get. This consistent theme, fashioned from Taoist philosophy, is weakness as strength and vice versa, and it plays out in both the characterization and actions of the series’ good and bad guys. A totalitarian technocracy, the Empire is the epitome of temporal power. The rebels are continually either running away from the Empire or practicing a form of military Jiu-Jitsu on them. They exploit weaknesses and use the Empire’s power and the massive weight of their centralized, top-down structures against them—tripping up their top-heavy AT-ATs and using their Death Stars’ own massive reactors to blow them up. The plot of Episode IV expresses this theme as a desperately asymmetrical battle pitting the most powerful military force in the galaxy against a ragtag group consisting of an old man, a farm boy, and a wanted criminal, all riding in a broken-down spaceship.

But to understand why Obi-Wan’s letting down of his defenses is pivotal to the themes and plot of the series, we have to go back to the beginning of the story. Why did Senator Palpatine succeed in bringing down the Republic and becoming emperor? How could one man, even a Sith Lord, bring down an entire galactic system watched over by an organized stratum of Jedi guardians? The answer is that the Republic carried the seeds of its own demise already—it was rotten at the core. In Episodes I, II, and III, the Jedi are seen wielding temporal power—commanding armies of Clone Troopers and wholeheartedly engaging in what amounts to a diversion orchestrated by a representative of the Dark Side. It’s evident that this wielding of temporal power is to the detriment of their spiritual power. We see a haughty Jedi Council sitting in state in a literal tower high above the Republic’s seat of power—Coruscant, a city overrun by technology—obsessively counting midichlorians and going home at night to luxury high-rise apartments, out of touch with the people and out of touch with their own Force sensitivity to such a degree that this concentration of the most brilliant Jedi minds can’t even detect a Sith Lord under their very noses. The Republic is bloated, bureaucratic, and technocratic, infested by banking clans and trade federations—not so much a true republic as an empire in embryo.

The Jedi in this first trilogy seem to be part of the problem, not part of the solution. They can barely be roused to interest themselves in Anakin, who appears to be the fulfillment of an important prophecy, and give no real thought to his fate. The Jedi Council’s fatal flaw is that they fail to understand the prophecy. They fail to realize that the way balance is to be brought to the Force is by the total dismantling of a decadent Jedi Order that is no longer serving the will of that Force. This is how Anakin fulfills the prophecy, by destroying the Jedi. He brings not peace but a sword. In fulfilling the prophecy, Anakin himself is destroyed and his spiritual power broken into two complementary halves, embodied in Luke and Leia.

In Episode IV, Yoda and Obi-Wan, disenfranchised, old, and living in obscurity, seem to have relearned humility and regained wisdom1. The first time Obi-Wan confronted a Sith Lord, he killed him in anger after witnessing the killing of his master, Qui-Gon Jinn. There followed a series of misadventures culminating in his nearly killing his own padawan. The Obi-Wan who squares off against Darth Vader is not the same person. He’s a man who can distinguish what’s important from what’s not. Yes, he is fighting Darth Vader, but fighting is almost incidental to his true purposes. First, he is buying Luke and the others time to escape. Second, he knows that he can’t escape fighting Darth Vader because they are on his turf and it is his will. Third, because he is aware that Luke will be a witness to the fight, he is taking the opportunity to impart an important lesson, laying the groundwork for his training with Yoda, and this is the theme that reverberates throughout the original trilogy and makes sense of the confusion of the first trilogy: in confronting temporal power, one should not attack it with more power, but instead retreat into the greater, spiritual power of the Force. Put your blast shield down, switch off your targeting computer. When Obi Wan says “I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine,” he’s not saying that he’ll morph into some uberpowerful demigod; he’s saying that, in death, he will cease to be an individual expression of the Force and become pure Force—his will and that of the universe will become one.

He is imparting a similar lesson to Darth/Anakin, reminding him of the superiority of spiritual power to temporal power, of weakness to strength. Had Obi-Wan clung fiercely to life, as is the way of the dark side, and fought, he would have likely died a painful and unnatural death at the hands of his pupil. Because he “let go” (Obi-Wan’s frequent postmortem exhortation to Luke, along with “run”) of life (and here it’s important to remember that he wasn’t really killed by Darth Vader; rather, he seems to have effected some kind of willed exit from temporal existence into the realm of the Force) he avoided that fate and gained magnified, eternal life. Is it possible he was intentionally laying the groundwork for Darth Vader’s conversion at the end of Episode III?

Psychologically, every child has to symbolically kill his parent in order to mature; myths and fairy tales all tell us this. The product of a virgin birth, Anakin has no father, but Obi-Wan is undoubtedly a father figure to him. Anakin’s growth as a person stopped at the moment he lost his first battle with Obi-Wan on Mustafar; Darth Vader is the personification of Anakin’s arrested development, symbolizing not only his being locked in a moment of fear and anger, but also the trauma of being nearly killed by his “father.” Mythologically, it is the role of the parent to be killed, not to kill; Zeus kills Kronos, not the other way around. Is it possible that Obi Wan understood this and thus allowed himself to be “killed” to make it possible for Anakin to move past that trauma?

Luke indirectly kills his father when he requires his help to survive the Emperor’s attempt to kill him. Luke gives his father the opportunity to sacrifice himself for the life of his son—the natural role of a parent. In thus dying—literally, but also figuratively to his role as Darth Vader—he is reborn to a mature acceptance of life and understanding of the Force.

The problem with the incongruous protagonists of Episode IV—Luke and Han—is that they know of no other way to fight power than with power (“Bring ’em on, I’d prefer a straight fight to all this sneaking around.”). To find a more workable way of dealing with antagonistic power, they have to rescue a princess with a map to the Death Star’s vulnerability—in other words, regain their feminine principle, with its knowledge of weakness2. This “strong weakness,” dramatically exemplified by Obi-Wan’s dropping of defenses, sets the pattern of action by the series’ protagonists, culminating in Luke’s courageous, and successful, pacifism in his confrontation with the Emperor and his redemption of his own father.

Anyway, that’s what I think. Luca says I’m full of BS. That kid kills me.

1 When Yoda says to Luke, “Wars not make one great,” he’s not just being cute, he’s speaking from experience as a veteran of the humiliating and pointless Clone Wars.

2 Standard disclaimer RE essentialist characterizations of women vs. men, etc.

The Aesthetics of GMO

Painting: The Hayfield, by Ford Madox Brown, 1855–1856In January, author Mark Lynas caused a global furor in environmental circles when he neatly reversed his opposition to genetically modified crops in an address at the Oxford Farming Conference. The internet lit up with controversy, and Lynas’s own website had to close its comment board after reaching 532 comments. Notably, he blamed the aesthetics of affluent Europeans—a “romantic nostalgia for the traditional farming of the past”—for the delay in getting lifesaving GM crops to a hungry world that desperately needs them.

So the rights of a well-heeled minority, which come down ultimately to a consumer preference based on aesthetics, trump the rights of everyone else to use improved crops which would benefit the environment.

I don’t know enough about the issue to take a truly informed stance as to whether, at this point, GMOs are, like it or not, the only hope for millions if they don’t want to starve, but I can say something about the terms of the debate. I will speak up in defense of aesthetics, particularly with regard to something so sensual as food.

Aesthetics is the way humans relate to food, regardless of our place within the global hierarchy of privilege. As animals, we judge whether it’s a good idea to eat something by how it looks, smells, feels, and tastes. (“Smell this. Do you think it’s okay to eat?”) We have relied on aesthetics to keep us fed rather than poisoned for millennia. And, importantly, it has *worked*. One could argue, and many have argued, that interference with the aesthetics of food—the manipulation of sweetness, saltiness, color, texture, etc. at an industrial level to get us to drink soda rather than water, eat Pringles rather than potatoes—is a large part of what has brought about the global crisis in obesity and its attendant diseases (heart disease, cancer, and diabetes). And such aesthetic manipulation is precisely the aim of much genetic modification: produce that doesn’t look weary after being shipped across the globe, apples that don’t brown when you cut them. If the aims of GMO are aesthetic, then let’s judge it on aesthetic merits.

But this is a little disingenuous, I admit. What Lynas means by “aesthetics” is not what an individual apple looks like but an entire picture of agriculture that opponents of GMO yearn for: preindustrial, pastoral, picturesque, sentimental. And he’s right, this is what seems to move the anti-GMO movement: an aesthetic appreciation of the past.

But again, we have to ask: is that so wrong? What makes the picture of preindustrial agriculture beautiful? That a family farm is prettier than a factory farm? Partly. A genuine, instinctive connection to the Earth, its processes and rhythms? Partly. A more honest, less cruel relationship with the animals we slaughter for our dinners? Partly. Tastier, more nutritious food? Partly. Rice without arsenic? Partly. It all adds up to a model of agriculture that, compared with what we have now, is more humane, ecologically sustainable, socioeconomically viable, spiritually satisfying, nutritious, and, yes, enjoyable.

Is it unrealistic? Romanticized? Probably. Is the proposed model better? No one knows—It’s untested, a gamble.

When you’re talking about the environment, beauty often correlates with health. A clear-cut forest is not beautiful. A coal mine is not beautiful. Neither is an industrial pig farm. The latter is pretty much something that offends the aesthetic sense in every way. The summer homes of the executives of Smithfield Foods are, I’m sure, in the Adirondacks or the Hamptons, not in Tar Heel, North Carolina. Aesthetic rejection of GM crops is part of the rejection of industrialized food in general, which encompasses issues of monoculture, intellectual property vs. traditional lifeways, consolidation of global food supplies, the impact of global supply chains on climate, the environmental impact of excessive packaging, animal cruelty, food waste, alienating labor and unsafe labor conditions, immigration, obesity, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and more. Aesthetics is the key to unlocking this cluster of issues—and to realizing that they are all related, that tinkering with a few chromosomes here and there does not bring us closer to solving the mystery of side-by-side hunger and obesity, or of starvation when we currently produce enough for everyone to eat, or to establishing a more stable relationship with our food—and, by extension, our world.

Scientists will often praise a theory or mathematical proof for its beauty or “elegance.” It’s an informal criterion that acknowledges the validity of aesthetic judgment, even in a field that supposedly excludes subjectivity. When scientists say “elegant” they mean economical, or “parsimonious.” Humans in general gravitate toward simple, beautiful solutions, knowing that nature won’t tolerate human complexity for long—our most elaborate edifices crumble first, and our complex systems succumb to entropy. Like the instinct toward sweetness, this is a trustworthy instinct, and it shouldn’t be discounted or manipulated into irrelevance.

Ice Cream at IKEA: a Photo Essay

This summer was The Summer of IKEA. Despite the 90-minute drive through scorching desert during a heat wave, we went to IKEA so many times—individually, as a couple, and as a family—that we started leaving toothbrushes there. The staff started rolling their eyes when we arrived. I witnessed a near-fistfight once. Luca watched most of Tangled in Småland. I now know all the shortcuts through the showroom. I ate something other than the meatballs.

And still I’m not sick of IKEA, even despite my experience with The Worst Dresser Ever Made. To me, it’s like going to Disney. It’s magic. It’s my regional design Mecca.

Plus, ice cream.

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