Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Doomer's Curse

The Deepwater Horizon disaster has triggered a strong emotional response. Gulf Coasters are grieving for their lost way of life and expressing outrage over BP and the government's response to the crisis. People from across the country and the world have demonstrated their empathy though protests, directing most of their frustration at BP. Even the President of the United States said in a televised interview that he was looking for an ass to kick.

I share in the pain and anger brought on by this tragedy. But I can't deny that it also summoned another feeling: self-satisfaction. The Doomer in me is cheered by this confirmation of the oil industry's reckless greed. He is delighted that millions of people will be shaken out of their torpor by the only thing apparently able to wake them up: an abrupt end to their livelihood. The Doomer says catastrophe is necessary to effect the societal changes required to deal with Peak Oil and Climate Change.

However, I know the Doomer is wrong. Crisis can bring out the best in people, but it can also bring out the worst. When people are in shock, they don't often make the best decisions. Extreme emotions tend to cloud one's judgment. The Doomer also forgets that it's a slippery slope from hoping for disaster to abetting it. He may get so caught up in following the news of collapse from around the world that he neglects (intentionally or not) to do anything to prevent or even mitigate the repercussions of that collapse. He may not even feel responsible for taking preemptive action, since he believes calamity is a prerequisite for reform. Of course, this theory only applies to the supposedly oblivious residents of distant states and countries. He would surely be singing a different tune if the same fate had befallen him.

The Doomer is motivated by much more than a perverse sense of altruism. He mainly desires to see everyone brought down to his level. His fondest wish is for everyone to be as emotionally crippled as he is, and, if they could also be paralyzed fiscally, that would be great too. The argument for the necessity of disaster is merely an excuse for his vindictive fantasies. This is the Doomer's Curse: to wallow in despair, to sneer at the happiness of others, to revel in schadenfreude and to believe that he has humanity's best interests at heart. The Doomer honestly thinks that a universal depression (in the emotional sense) would lay the foundation for a better world, but this belief is rooted in his own selfishness, not in a rational socioeconomic analysis.

The Doomer wants this world to end, because in this world he is a failure. He has failed to achieve his goals personally and/or professionally, but he lacks the maturity to take responsibility for his failure. He blames the rules of this world for his defeat, to the point of judging this world irredeemably corrupt. This belief makes a virtue of his failure, for only the corrupt could succeed in such a world. His moral integrity precludes his success in this den of iniquity. With a better perspective, he could see that it's not the world's corruption that condemns him to failure, but rather his failure that leads him to condemn the world. Therefore, instead of taking steps to improve his chances of success, he throws up his hands, picks up the remote (or the mouse) and eagerly awaits the end of the world that (he believes) is dead set against him.

The Doomer confuses his personal collapse with the "inevitable" collapse of society. ("Inevitable" is the keystone of the Doomer vocabulary and, as such, should be avoided whenever possible.) He suffers from a severe case of tunnel vision. Like a horse with blinders on, he can only see what's immediately in front of him. Anything indicating that other people's experience contradicts his world-view is dismissed as false or a lie propagated by the corrupt elite. He doesn't want his dogma tested, because then it might be refuted, and the emotional consequences of that would be too much to bear. He would have to accept that he has failed due to his lack of merit and not by his refusal to make some moral compromise.

As I mentioned before, the Doomer I refer to is not a personality type. He is an aspect of my personality and, it seems, the personalities of many people. (How else do you explain the enduring popularity of apocalyptic cults, auto racing or Goth music?) I'm attempting self-analysis in the hope that it will resonate with others. Therefore, when I call the Doomer a loser willing to blame anyone but himself, I'm talking about myself. All the characteristics I enumerated are ones that I've personified many times in the five years since I learned about Peak Oil and even before then. My hope is that being honest about my Doomerism will help me overcome these tendencies and help others recognize the same tendencies in themselves.

My other motivation for writing this essay is to point out that our emotional condition goes a long way toward determining our vision of the future. Someone wrote that Peak Oil is like a Rorschach test. People use it to project their wishes onto the future. For instance, those who pray for the death of industrial capitalism are likely to view Peak Oil as the catalyst for just such an event. In this mindset Peak Oil functions as a Messiah, able to deliver the faithful from whatever evil plagues them. But we must remember that the future doesn't take requests. Unless we can make common cause with millions of like-minded individuals, we aren't likely to get the change we want, with or without Peak Oil. And, even if we do succeed, we'll probably have to work within resource limits far more restrictive than we're used to.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Champions of My Heart

We've come to the end of another long NBA postseason and, once again, I find myself emotionally bereft. Well, maybe not bereft, but certainly disappointed. I managed to attach myself to the losing side for the final three rounds of the playoffs, and in the Finals the team I was rooting for lost for the sixth straight year. There hasn't been an NBA champion I was honestly happy for since the '04 Pistons. (I should've been happy for the '08 Celtics, but, due to cowardly extenuating circumstances, I was not. For an explanation, refer to my post from June 2008, "I Won't Let the Celtics Hurt Me Again.")

Heading into the playoffs, my team was the Cleveland Cavaliers, as it was the year before, led by my favorite player, the charismatic (and messianic) LeBron James. For the second straight season the Cavs had the best regular-season record in the league, and for the second straight season they crapped out in crunch time.

This year their comeuppance was delivered by the crafty, often-decrepit Boston Celtics, although the difference in their second-round matchup was an up-and-comer, Boston's point guard Rajon Rondo. The Celtics administered a devastating lesson on the finer points of the game, schooling the younger, more athletic Cavs with poised, heady play. It was another reminder that, as Don Mashak once said, "Age and Guile do not always beat Youth, enthusiasm and Idealism, but that is the way to bet." Of course, this begs the question, "Who the %$@# is Don Mashak?"

Once LeBron and the Cavaliers had exited stage right (in an inglorious and ignominious fashion, I might add), my loyalties drifted to the Orlando Magic in the hope that they could dispatch these rough, crude Celtics post-haste. Sadly, the Magic proved just as helpless to Boston's wiles as the Cavs had been. The Celtics made Orlando look amateurish and stage-struck as they conducted a basketball clinic against another youthful, spry opponent.

Matched up against the Lakers in the Finals, I had little choice but to pledge my allegiance to the Celtics. In '08 my rooting interests had become so confused that I'd found myself (shockingly) pulling for the Lakers against the Celtics, despite a pro-Celtic, anti-Laker bias bred in childhood by my father. I wasn't able to throw my support fully behind the Celtics until Game 4, when Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Nate Robinson, two Boston bench players, provided the decisive lift to even the series at 2 games apiece. After making a key basket while drawing a foul, the 6'9", 289-lb Davis let out a barbaric yawp (along with some drool) as the 5'9" Robinson jumped onto his back. (It should be noted that the listed heights and weights of professional athletes are not always accurate. Davis and Robinson are a few inches shorter, and Davis a few pounds heavier, than they would have us believe.) Their unbridled enthusiasm and uninhibited revelry won me over.

By the time the NBA Finals had reached Game 7 (for only the third time in the last 22 years), I had pitched my tent firmly in the Celtics camp and thus effectively ruined Boston's chances for their 18th championship. The final game was a gritty, defensive struggle with all the effort (if not all the skill) one would hope to see in the season's ultimate showdown. Los Angeles came out on top, and I was left to pick up the pieces once more.

The questions I have to ask myself now are: "Why does it mean so much to me? Why do I put myself through this?" The mystery of fan-dom has confounded scholars since time immemorial. If I may add my two cents, I would guess that I'm eager to place my happiness in arbitrary hands, because I have little faith in my ability to bring myself happiness. Also, rooting for the home team is a shortcut to a sense of community sorely lacking in our society these days. Finally, and most crucially I think, sport provides a stage for mythic storylines to be played out: Good vs. Evil, Celtics vs. Lakers, Anybody vs. Duke. Although, just as in real life, there's no guarantee the Hero will defeat the Villain, which makes the contest all the more interesting. Doesn't everyone need a Champion to ride into battle on their behalf, whether it's Richard the Lionheart trying to wrest the Holy Land from Saladin or LeBron James dunking on Kobe Bryant's head?

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Best Name in Baseball

I've found the best name in baseball: Lastings Milledge. He's the Pittsburgh Pirates' leftfielder. How does one come by such a name in this day and age? His bio on offers no clues. He's from Bradenton, FL, as many professional athletes seem to be. He played in the Little League World Series in '97. And that's about it. No mention of any Amish background. Not a word about being named after some Gilded Age robber baron ancestor. The only thing Wikipedia has to add is that he has his own cheering section called "The Milledge People." I can only hope they dress in Edwardian fashions and pepper the opposing players with such jibes as "You have the uncouth bearing of a Knickerbocker!" or "Your mother is so rotund she requires a hogshead of figgy pudding in order that her appetite might be sated!"

Monday, June 07, 2010

The Slipper Didn't Fit

This is my attempt at literary therapy to get over the men's college basketball championship game. Even though it happened 2 months ago, I've struggled to process my feelings verbally. It was a crushing defeat, for me, for Butler, for underdogs everywhere, for anyone who ever felt they weren't good enough, for the American farmer struggling to make ends meet, for scruffy orphans of the Natty Gann variety and, most of all, for the universal human sense of justice.

The day after the game I went to the health club and shot hoops for an hour, trying to reverse the outcome. But no amount of swished jumpers or sweet reverse dunks on the 8-foot basket could change the score, even if they did bring me some peace. Duke's crime against nature hadn't diminished my game, just my soul, along with the souls of every other person on earth who believes that dreams really do come true.

I thought of recording my own rendition of "One Shining Moment" and setting it to a montage of Duke's most painful defeats. There would be the No. 1-ranked Dukies losing in the championship game to Louisville in '86, a heavily-favored Duke team losing to UConn in '99 and, the coup de grace, Duke getting shellacked by UNLV in '90. The last game remains the Duke Hater's finest hour. It still holds the record for biggest blowout in a championship game (3o points). UNLV's run'n'gun style combined with the elevation at Denver and Bobby Hurley's flu (which resulted in him losing his lunch at halftime) made for a fabulous evening for the Duke Hater in all of us.

There's a sports journalism convention of featuring the champion in stories about the championship game and rightly so. But to me it often seems like more of a favor to the champs than the readers. The champs' stories aren't always the most compelling, especially when it comes to the Final Four. It may be the impulse to cozy up to the powerful, a trait that infects every segment of journalism. Or it may be our culture's worship of winners and the Social Darwinism encapsulated in the popular phrase "survival of the fittest" (a telling deviation from Darwin's original "survival of the fit"). Yes, all hail Mighty Duke, Slayer of Hope, Destroyer of Dreams!

Right on cue, that week's Sports Illustrated delivered its paean to the champions, Duke, with only a brief, cursory salute to Butler, the vanquished underdog whose story is about a million times more interesting, even in defeat. I think the real reason SI didn't focus on Butler is because it would've pissed off Duke. Mike Krzyzewski (Duke's legendary "Coach K") might never give SI an interview again or let them interview anyone else associated with the program. Or maybe they focus on the champions because they've always done it that way and they can't even imagine doing it any other way. I have a rather low opinion of mainstream journalists.

Is my despair at Butler's loss a symptom of my collaboration in the dominant narrative, the belief that the victor is always the hero of the story? After all, what does it matter that Butler came up two points short of the national championship when their performance was so inspired and inspiring? The point is not that they lost but that they played beautifully and would've been deserving champions had they won. The loss shouldn't diminish their achievement. After two months, I think I'm ready to start believing that.