Tabs Open #26: Like So Much Hay Tossed Up To A Loft

As is so often the case we heard the ravens before we saw them. Their strange guttural cries came to us from somewhere up above the basin. And then one soared overhead, black and sleek. I read once that the best way to tell crows apart from ravens is that if you see a crow it’s a crow, and if you see a big crow it’s still a crow, and if you see a crow that makes you say “holy shit that is a big goddamn crow” then that’s probably a raven. The corollary held true for us: it was so big that we could hear its wings beating as it worked its way across the wide gap between the ridges of Gothic Basin. I’m not sure there’s a more fittingly-named place to see a raven.

My first instinct, as always, was to whip out my camera. But I wasn’t in time and anyway how could any shot that my phone could take actually capture the experience of that. Hearing those calls and then seeing it flap past on dinosaur wings, head so black and statuesque that it might have been chiseled from jet. 

What I’ve learned about the woods—and I’ve spent a lot of time in them—is that you have to show up often enough to catch the little bits of magic where they happen. It is a painful but necessary thing to remember that the animals there do not care about you. The raven will not come to a halt in mid-air to pose for a picture, the pika will not wait on the rocks long enough for you to see and admire it from every angle. It is simply too busy being a pika. There is hay to be pulled into the winter burrow for eating, there are lichens and sedge to be gnawed, there are other pikas to breed with. You do not factor into their plans one bit. Which of course makes it all the more special to catch a glimpse of one peeking out of a talus field crying out to its neighbors, probably regarding matters of haypile defense. 

Of course when you get down to it much of what we engage in is, at its heart, no different than what the pika gets up to. The concerns of food, of mating, of our societies and our private haypiles. We have our own notions of how to handle these concerns; we remark and remember those people whose routines we find aberrant. (I’m not sure pikas or ravens are so judgmental but I don’t want to speak for them. They’re pretty loud without my help.)

The character of such people—Herman Melville, for one—can long outlive the person themselves. 2019 marked the second centennial of Melville’s birth, and while he did his best to destroy most of the day-to day record of who he was and what he was like, he has nevertheless survived, both on the strength of his writing and for his legendarily bizarre habits.

His papers have been published, the notes he made in his books digitized, a log of his every day compiled, each movement traced, all utterances analyzed, every dog-eared page scanned and uploaded, like so much hay tossed up to a loft. And yet, as Andrew Delbanco wrote in a canny biography, “Melville: His World and Work” (2005), “the quest for the private Melville has usually led to a dead end.”

On the road to that dead end there stands a barn, and it is on fire. Melville did not want his papers to be preserved. “It is a vile habit of mine to destroy nearly all my letters,” he confessed. He burned his manuscripts. He shied from photographers: “To the devil with you and your Daguerreotype!”

Somehow I doubt any pikas are engaged in burning their own haypiles. It is for this reason that Melville the man, not just Melville the author, lives on.

The New Yorker piece linked above accepts the possibility that Melville was insane. I don’t really know how to agree or disagree with that, or what it really means—he was an oddball, no doubt—but I do think our definition of what does and does not constitute “normal” behavior is based mostly on its relation to productivity and work. Do you “work hard,” do you disrupt others’ ability to “work hard,” are you capable of being at work and being your “best self” at the same time? That sort of thing.

(Lest you think I’m going to completely shit all over that idea let me just say that I recently found out that Waffle House has its own poet laureate, and okay that sounds like a job I could be my best self at.)

One of the most insidious forms this culture of productivity takes is the quasi-religious devotion to “mindfulness” being pushed on all of us by people whose bottom lines are at stake. Capitalism is at its heart a delicate balancing act by employers: how much can we squeeze out of our workers—time, health, energy—without squeezing so hard that those people can no longer work for us?

[Ron] Purser, a professor at San Francisco State University who studies corporate culture, asks what if, instead of changing the world, mindfulness teaches people to be content with injustice and inequalities that pervade society?

In the wrong hands, he argues, mindfulness can become an instrument for corporate compliance. Rather than organize to change the need for self-care and breathing exercises in the first place, he writes, corporate mindfulness, or McMindfulness, becomes a pacifier that teaches workers to be comfortable with insecurity. Emotions like stress and anger are purely subjective, arising not from precarious labor conditions but from within—all in your head.

Since they will never pursue solutions that meaningfully challenge their right to exist and keep doing this to people, they instead pursue ones that put the onus on workers to feel responsible for their own ability to keep working. Mindfulness threads this needle perfectly, a safe option that acknowledges a sliver of the problem (“look how busy and stressed we all are!”) without ever reckoning with the underlying chasm of horrors that has resulted in everyone’s heightened stress and busyness. As Ron Purser notes:

He made a statement at Davos a while back saying the main business case for mindfulness is that if you’re more focused on the job, you’ll become a better leader and that can help executives and staff behave less aggressively.

Almost at the same time he said that, a 21-year-old at Merrill Lynch died of an epileptic seizure after working 72-hour workweeks. Goldman Sachs heard about this and announced new rules that they would cap workdays for interns at 17 hours. So, are we witnessing mindful leadership with that decision?

To embrace mindfulness as the solution to anything (other than any given hour’s stress, which it is good at combating!) is to collapse the power dynamics that govern our lives. I am forced to wonder: what is it to be “sane” and productive in the era of McMindfulness—what are we really trying to set our brains to the task of?

I confess myself bizarrely fascinated by all things corporate culture. I suspect this is because I have never worked in one of these places and am certain I never could. And I see the exploitation of people’s desire to be healthy and the exploitation of, well, everything else as two sides of the same coin.

Take this incredible bit of journalism from The New Republic outlining the series of decisions, stretching back decades, that ultimately combined to put two Boeing 737 MAX jets into the ocean in the past year, claiming the lives of all 346 passengers and pilots aboard them. The planes were not brought down by pilot error or by freak circumstance but by a cutthroat corporate ethos that required cutting corners, outsourcing crucial elements of design and engineering to people making pennies, and crushing union workers who raised safety concerns. They were brought down by a financial system that rewarded, not punished, Boeing for these failures—the company’s stock price went up after the first plane, hijacked by its own “smart” nose correction system, plunged into the sea.

So: what is all this for? Who is all this for? Existentially these are questions without answers. Materially these are questions with very easy answers. And the bastards are going to win more often than not, but it’s important to fight anyway.

This newsletter started with a nature story and I’d like to end it with one. Primo Levi’s “Bear Meat” is one of the best ever, so back in February I read it to the camera, finding out very quickly how difficult even rudimentary video editing is to the layperson. I’ll probably do more of this kind of thing in the future to share in this space if people seem to like it.

That’s all I’ve got for this week. The new school year is only two days old and my brain is pretty much maxed out.

See you next time.