The Barrel Cactus

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I was visiting San Diego, and walking along a cliffside nature trail in a protected area of the coastline with my partner. It was gorgeous; there was a salt breeze. The coastal scrub smelled herbal and sharp; my senses were awake. We came upon a small sign.

It was one of those ground-mounted labels designed to educate people walking along the trail– various plants were marked, and their attributes, relation to their habitat, and protected status were discussed. I like this kind of thing; I like that we, as a species, take the time to care.

The sign we approached was for a barrel cactus. Barrel cactuses, you’re probably familiar with. They’re often used in high-end landscaping, but in the wild, they’re more rare. They’re big, round, plump balls of juicy succulent covered in spines– exactly what they sound like. I believe this particular sign was for a San Diego Barrel Cactus– endangered in California now, though common elsewhere.

When I came upon the sign I looked around for the cactus– I couldn’t immediately see it, so I assumed it must be smaller, or maybe hidden behind other brush that had grown up. As one often does with these signs, I spent some time scanning the bush for the thing the label referred to.

I came to the slow and painful realization that the barrel cactus was not there. 

This sign referred to a barrel cactus that had once been there, but was now gone. Maybe there were others in the area (I didn’t see any), but this particular barrel cactus, the one that had inspired the little label on the ground, had vanished. The label was there by itself.

I immediately became very sad. It was a deeper, more immediate, and more painful sadness than I have experienced in a long time. I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. I think my partner rubbed my shoulder; I can’t remember.

It used to be that when I heard the word “biodiversity,” it was an abstract concept to me. It sounded like a word scientists used, that referred to some kind of technical and quantifiable aspect of the natural environment– ”the level of biodiversity,” et cetera. But as I was struggling to come up with language to describe how I felt about encountering this nonexistent barrel cactus, that word kept coming up.

As I explored the world in the following months, I started noticing it everywhere. One of my favorite things in the world to do is to drive up the California coast with music on– to just absorb the impossible wonder as one moves through Big Sur, then Marin, then the Lost Coast. I was taking a road trip north with my partner and I started to realize that so many of the things I loved about that experience were a result of this thing, this “biodiversity.”

The cliffs, the redwoods, the underbrush, the vultures, the dolphins– it was all working together to create this incredible movie that I got to live inside. It all unfolded and rippled around me; it all heaved with life and change and it created these amazing places and things that I got to experience, these hikes and drives and visions.

During that trip we visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is just an extraordinary human achievement. When I went there as a kid, with my family, I really didn’t fully appreciate it. I hadn’t the mental equipment; the context. It’s a former fish cannery (located on Cannery Row, naturally), that’s been converted into a center for education and conservation. A place that used to chew through sea life by the metric ton is now a church dedicated to preserving biodiversity and teaching us how important it is.

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I stood in front of the movie-screen-sized aquarium wall and I watched a vast flock silvery mackerel swoop and dive and part and re-merge around an enormous ocean sunfish. The complexity was breathtaking, the beauty was otherworldly. It was like watching living light. And I was shaken by how, nested inside that, was the complexity of each creature– not just the dance of the fish but the dance of the blood and cells inside the fish; the whole dance of evolutionary history that allowed me to be standing there, witnessing this beauty– just like on the Pacific Coast Highway.

It’s incredibly delicate. And it can go away. Just like that barrel cactus did.

Wallace Stegner once said, about American National Parks:

“National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst."

After these experiences I tend to agree with him. We are primates; we live inside nature. So it takes a special kind of extraordinary primate to poke his head up and say, “look at all this– this is special. I must not only look after my own survival; I must look after the survival of this whole system. I see the beauty in this and I must preserve it.”

But this is what we have done. It is god-like, or maybe just godly. We write poetry about nature in an attempt to capture the whole thing. We photograph sunsets at the beach, beautiful birds, redwood trees. We really do care; we feel such strong emotions in these settings, and our inner emotional lives and the emotional and creative lives of the entire history of our civilization are informed by these images and feelings. We speak in terms of mighty rivers, of gentle lambs, of strong and green trees and of deep oceans filled with warm life. This language arises from our blood, but we are aware of it, we value it, we try to save it.

This may be the thing that makes the human race most worthwhile. It may be that life produced a species such as us so that it could consciously and deliberately preserve and care for itself.

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It’s important also to recognize that the goal is “biodiversity”; this must frame the issue. Because it’s easy to say that nature is oblivious to us– that if we bomb ourselves back to the stone age, either new life (a cockroach civilization?) will arise in our place, or the universe will spin on, indifferent. I used to believe that the world didn’t care about us and that nature was invincible; that no matter how much we destroyed or polluted, life would find a way.

Maybe. But we can look around at the oceans or rainforests and we can observe incredibly complex, delicate ecosystems that, like the barrel cactus, might disappear. So it’s not a question of “ultimate” value– maybe the universe wouldn’t care if all these species died; if the earth fell into the sun. But do we? Could we live with ourselves if the glory of the Pacific Coast or the wonder of the humpback whale just didn’t exist anymore?

By way of illustration, the following is an XKCD comic compares all earth’s land mammals by weight. I find the results to be pretty shocking.

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This makes the picture abundantly clear. We can talk all we want to about how invincible nature is, but unless the only kind of animal we value is the cow, we’re doing a pretty bad job of ensuring the biodiversity of the planet. And if we lose that, we lose the poetry too. Other people will come upon more empty signs; labels for things that no longer exist. When future generations write about the speed of the wolf or the majesty of the elephant, they will be referring to non-existent creatures as we now refer to the dinosaurs. The last remaining male northern white rhinoceros died in March of 2018.

Perhaps more shockingly, entire environments, like the jungle or the redwood forest, could go missing. Our fantasies, our imaginations, will lose their playgrounds of wonder. Even science fiction writers need tentacles and towering trees. Not to mention all the other resources or medicines we’ll lose; things we haven’t even discovered yet.

As we went walking through Cannery Row we came upon a dilapidated wooden building tucked away between the tourist-trap indoor malls. It was much older than the surrounding structures, and as we walked along the side alley we saw big, abandoned concrete bins out back. There were some plaques describing what the building was.

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Apparently, it had been the seaside lab and specimen-harvesting facility of Ed Ricketts, a biologist local to Monterey, a friend of Steinbeck’s, and author of Between Pacific Tides, a pioneering study of intertidal ecology. Ricketts was particularly interested in interrelationships– ecology was a young field then, and he was one of the earlier researchers to view creatures within the context of their environment and their connection to the other organisms around them, rather than just as peculiar and isolated examples of life.

Rickets also had a broad philosophical view, sprung from this holistic perspective, that had a profound effect on the artists, writers, and thinkers he kept company with– a group that included Steinbeck, yes, but also people like Henry Miller and mythologist Joseph Campbell. Campbell said in an interview:

"I was five years without a job. I went out to California looking for one and settled down in Carmel, where I met John Steinbeck, who was also broke. That was an important moment for me, especially getting to know his collaborator, Ed Ricketts, who's the doctor in his novels.

Ricketts was an intertidal biologist and I had been interested in biology from my school days. Talking with Ricketts, I realized that between myth and biology there is a very close association. I think of mythology as a function of biology: it's a production of the human imagination, which is moved by the energy of the organs of the body operating against each other.”

Campbell understood through Ricketts that poetry, myth, and the human imagination are, at their root, products of nature. This is a truth that impacted profoundly upon me during the course of this trip and over the last year or so. I saw that it would be very difficult to draw inspiration in a world where these infinitely complex systems no longer existed. I looked at the tiny, colorful seahorse swimming through the aquarium’s water and saw a pulsating organ in my own creative body that I would be loathe to amputate.

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Every part of the system is so complex, and so connected to other parts of the system, and it all took so long to develop, that we can’t do what we would with a machine and simply put in a replacement part. As Randall Munroe might say: our usual approach is useless here. Next time an ocean sunset or a bluejay or a tiger takes your breath away, I encourage you to contemplate this, and to consider where art comes from in the first place. Human diversity is not exempt from this– even the complexity of our inspiring, exciting, and diverse cities, at this point, require sustainable conservation in the face of massive inequality. Our vast culture cannot run on toxic fumes and homelessness.

It’s hard to write about ecology without steeping oneself in cliche and melodrama, I realize. But it will be even harder to write about barrel cacti when there are no more barrel cacti. Human beings can create many marvelous and complex things, but we are not yet wizards enough to refill that empty space next to that label.

The Knot

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In the form of Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari has actually written a long essay that builds to a single thesis. He believes that the last good chunk of human history, since the enlightenment, since religion began to lose its grip on the world, has been governed by humanistic values– the idea that each of us has a sovereign inner voice.

This is the basis for democracy, for art, for the way each of us lives our individual lives. We gather information, but at the end of the day each of us must listen to that inner voice and choose what we’re going to do.

Harari’s devastating thesis is that with the dawn of AI, and with the development of algorithms that siphon all of our life-data into decision-making protocols, eventually, these algorithms will begin to know us better than we know ourselves. Eventually, for example, an algorithm will have a better idea of whether your long-term relationship with a particular person will have a good chance of success and happiness than you will. Under these circumstances, he argues, it will be foolish not to listen to the algorithms, because they’ll be able to guide us toward healthier, happier, more fulfilled, more productive lives than we could achieve on our own.

But this development will create a seismic change in the human experience, of similar gravity to the change precipitated by the decline of religion. The “inner voice,” the holy grail of modern humanistic, democratic, and creative culture, will lose its place of primacy.

I obviously think way too much about this stuff.

After all, it’s clear that this hasn’t happened yet. Whether or not it will in the future, machine-learning algorithms are still far too clumsy to guide our lives, our wills, our day-to-day experiences. They’re starting to help us in small ways– by telling us how much to exercise, or where to drive– but they cannot yet effectively tell us who to love or what to do with our lives.

We still have to figure that out ourselves.

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My crisis of inner faith, my lack of ability to listen to my own inner voice, has a long history. When I was very young, my family was religious. This was fine for me at first. I especially loved losing myself in the exultant haze of evangelical worship– I sang, danced, clapped, and reached out to God along with the rest of the rejoicing congregation. I even spoke in tongues.

This is difficult for those who have never experienced it to understand. They wonder why I would have done such outlandish things. But from an inner, emotional perspective, these behaviors seemed completely natural to me, even crucial. I felt a geyser of joy in my heart when I leapt up and down for God with the rest of the congregation. I felt a desperate urgency and total bliss in being connected to the One whom I thought had created the universe.

I don’t believe in that God or in Christianity anymore. Was I wrong to trust myself?

During my growing-up, especially when I started to go through puberty, believing in Christianity got harder and harder for me. I wanted very badly to experience a wide variety of sexual things that my faith deemed off-limits. Even thinking about these things was problematic and taboo. On top of the sex stuff, I was curious about the way the world worked. I was also deeply in love with fantasy literature, with the idea of magic, with science and the future, and with extreme and sensuous forms of spirituality. All dangerous turf, according to fundamentalist Christianity.

Eventually, the tension between these two poles became too great. My developing personality was growing sharp edges and bulging bones that couldn’t be contained by Christian ideology any longer. I was asking questions that bewildered the clergy at my church. Something had to give.

I left, of course. I never looked back.

But during this whole process, I was told over and over again that my inner voice was sinful. That these growing parts of me were wrong. That I was leaving God behind, and that my life would be ruined as a result.

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In school, I didn’t fare much better. I was told to do my math homework, and I didn’t do it; I either forgot or I procrastinated. I read adult books like Jurassic Park under my desk in my third grade class, and was scolded and told to pay attention to the spelling lesson, where we were reviewing the difference between “there” and “their” and “they’re.”

When I was in high school, I wanted to spend time drawing or making music more than I wanted to do my classwork. I barely paid attention in English classes and got all A’s. I barely paid attention in math classes and nearly flunked them. I was told repeatedly that I had to stop screwing around; that i had to pay more attention to my schoolwork.

Music in particular was a problem. I had no formal training, and was teaching myself to play guitar and piano by ear. When offered formal classes, I demonstrated no interest. I was much more interested in teaching myself to mess around with electronic music composition in programs like Reason.

I was told that I needed to focus, that I needed to get good grades so I could get into a good school, and that I needed a backup plan– I couldn’t rely on being an artist or a musician to make money. These were hobbies, and I needed to find a vocation. I was told I could always teach, if I pursued literature or English. I was good at books. I decided to do as I was advised.

Fast forward to the end of college, in 2011. The economic crisis has just happened. It’s become clear to me that graduate school in the humanities is basically a giant scam. I’m also not prepared to get any kind of lucrative job with my degrees in communications and comparative literature. I’m graduating from Cal State Long Beach, not a particularly impressive school, because of my relatively poor performance in high school.

I’d done some awesome creative projects during college, but they’d never had my full, undivided attention. I had tried to split the difference between following my heart and following everyone else’s advice, and I’d basically wound up nowhere. I hadn’t taken my own passions seriously, nor had I really taken school seriously.

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An ongoing and searing source of resentment, though, was the fact that along the way, I never received any particularly good advice about what I should do. My college professors appreciated my intellect, and basically behaved as though everything would work out fine. Same with my advisors. Just like my teachers and my endless string of counselors in elementary school and middle school, where I’d been labeled “gifted” and simultaneously had been medicated for ADD.

I had reached the real world, and I longed for answers, for mentorship, for guidance, but nobody really seemed to be able to provide these things. Nobody really seemed to have any idea what was going on.

I dove further into my interests. Since I cared about pop culture, I did an internship at an entertainment PR company. Since I cared about branding, I got a job (that I was woefully underprepared for) at a branding consultancy. Since I cared about magic, art, and the creation of culture, I started a dialog and eventual collaboration with a groundbreaking creative consultancy.

Somewhere along the way I expected to “make it”; to be taken under the wing of an entity with money and resources so that my talent could be properly developed and so that I could find a place in the world and a way to support myself. This never happened. Everyone seemed to agree that I have an enormous amount of potential, but nobody could really tell me what to do.

You’re probably reading between the lines already. I was looking everywhere but inward for the answer. How can someone else tell you what to do with your life? Obviously, they can’t.

At the same time, it’s also clear to me that my entire generation has been lost on a broken landscape. Some of us have found our way through, but being adults doesn’t look anything like we were told it was going to look.

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During this whole process, as a lot of you know, I was writing constantly on Facebook– especially during the lowest times, when I was living at home with my folks (who tirelessly supported me), working out every day like a monk, and searching for a way to fill my time between fruitless job applications with meaning. I wrote to understand myself, and to talk about the world, and to talk to you all. And eventually, I also wrote to “promote my brand”– to create some kind of platform from which I could argue a certain kind of creative expertise. If I got enough followers, enough attention, maybe I could make a job out of this.

During this process, Facebook took over my life. I was checking it constantly, I was addicted to getting notifications. The breaking point came when I would find myself scrolling and I wouldn’t even remember having taken out my phone.

During my quest to understand what had happened to me, I got increasingly disillusioned with online interaction. This is a story that will be familiar to many people: I started to feel like every time I posted on or interacted with Facebook and Instagram, I was doing free labor for multinational corporations. And once I started to understand how illusory Facebook connections can really be in terms of things like lead conversion, it started to feel like the entire thing was pointless. And who wants to think of their friends as leads anyway?

I started to become obsessed with in-person interactions, with intimacy, with things that felt much deeper and richer than social media. So, as many of you know, I shut the whole thing down. I established a mailing list, and I went into hiding. I tried to work out a new way to be in the world, a way that felt solid and real to me. It’s an ongoing project.

This, however, sets up a conundrum for the creative person. In the modern world, you can’t really be a successful creator of media without an online presence– that’s what everyone says, anyway. And my entire work history, my entire life, has been, in various ways, about the creation of media.

The words of Netflix’s CEO keep echoing through my head: “our biggest competitor is sleep.” The world of media is aggressively, invasively trying to capture and exploit your attention, your time, one of the few resources you can never get back.

Does the world need more media? How can I justify willfully contributing to that? At this point, isn’t it the same as dumping garbage in public?

These seemed like unanswerable questions to me, and they really tripped me up during my effort to find work in branding or copywriting or content production, the kinds of areas where I’m most qualified. Suddenly, I’m in a position where my entire work history is pointed toward something that I find immoral.

One of my most valued mentors asked me, while I was coming to grips with all this, whether I really wanted success in the marketing or branding world to be my final destination– whether that was the room I wanted to be sitting in, when all was said and done. I had looked at branding as sort of the ultimate hybrid artform. But when I thought about it, I had to tell her no. Those aren’t the people I want to be around. I want to be around artists, thinkers in technology and biology and economics, people who made things. People who had real ideas.

I thought I could get there by proving my worth as a branding person. But proving your worth as a branding person just gets you jobs in branding. It, by itself, was not going to get me where I wanted to be. It, by itself, was not somehow going to answer the question of what I should be doing with my life.

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During my struggles with these things, about a year ago, I got a job coordinating wheelchairs at Los Angeles International Airport in order to make ends meet. It may be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s physically strenuous manual labor. I work a night shift, and I often get off between 1am and 3am. I have to repeatedly solve totally impossible problems that involve real people with zero time to think. But even more significantly, I get to help people every day that have marginal mobility. I get to interact with all kinds of human beings.

After doing this, it’s hard for me to see the global marketing community as anything other than predatory. These people often can’t even walk, or they’ve lost limbs to IEDs, or they’re traveling to the Philippines to visit their family the single time they get to each year with nine suitcases, but I’m concerned about optimizing the feed coming through their phones so that they’ll pay more attention to them and click on the right things and buy stuff to make someone money. It’s difficult to convince myself that it adds up.

As that quest to create grand marketing narratives has lost meaning, other things in my life have gained meaning. I’ve had some very emotional experiences around animals, plants, and biodiversity. I’ve come to feel that my relationship with my family is very important. And I’ve become very dedicated to building an amazing life with my partner. We’ve moved into a beautiful home together in Culver City, and I care very much about making this into the perfect place to share our lives, interests, and passions with one another and with those we care about.

Along with these shifting interests, I’ve started to care more about conservation and about the kind of world we’re building. So on top of my concerns about invasive marketing, it’s started to feel like the decision to make anything at all has to be very carefully considered. It feels like most creative production is either a waste of people’s time and attention or a waste of resources. It started to feel like the most radical thing I could do was keep silent and remain still.

I’m not quite ready to become a monk, though. And my lack of creative production has made me feel depressed, impotent, and like I’ve given up some of my most vital energies out of fear. But I know that so many companies are salivating for me to create and consume, to participate in the cycle. It starts to feel like anything we make is sucked up into a machine larger than us that is predatory. It’s not about our communities and friends anymore. It’s about shareholder value. It’s about something else. My inner longing for significance and a productive life becomes another piston in the capitalist mechanism. Once again, I’ve arrived at a place where trusting my heart, my longings, my desires, feels complicated and problematic. 

And if we believe Yuval Noah Harari, soon my desires won’t matter all that much anyway. Really, I should just let this whole system of markets and algorithms and dopamine triggers take over because eventually, it will be smarter than me. It will be the new sovereign will.

Here we are, once again, at the idea of trusting myself. Does trusting myself mean just creating uncritically? Or does it mean running as fast as I can in the other direction and becoming a hermit in the woods? What exactly does it mean?

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I’m slowly working that out. I know, really, that I can’t just create uncritically– the other problem with all this, the problem I haven’t even mentioned yet, is that I feel like art has betrayed me many times over. That may be the real core issue– that I don’t feel I can trust my inspiration because I don’t feel it’s led me anywhere good.

In college and after, I was involved in lots of creative projects– many of you know about these– that were intentionally provocative or edgy. It wasn’t just about getting attention, though. It was a more visceral feeling than that. Because of the history of self-doubt and false starts I’ve already detailed, and because of my own on-fire nature, I had so much rage. So much energy I needed to get out, and so much frustration with all the social rules I’d followed that I felt hemmed in that energy. Many of the adults in my life had been so flatly wrong about so many things that I felt I needed to reach out and destroy or disrupt every edifice of culture I could. When I felt resistance, I just pushed harder.

As you can imagine, I was oversimplifying things. I was creating an enemy where none existed. We’re all just people, and we’re all in this together. But while I was convinced of the import of my behavior, I caused a lot of hurt, to other people, and to myself.

While I was thrashing around, dealing with all of this, over the years, I searched for and connected with various mentors. Some took me in and taught me, only to promptly wash their hands of me when my path diverged from theirs. Some were reluctant mentors, work bosses who saw something in me but had no real time or resources or will to devote to helping me find my way. Some stuck with me as friends for years, as much as they could. And some mentors have worked with me, steadfast through all my vacillations, to this very day. But from each and every one of them, I think I wanted something they couldn’t give me: an answer to why all this was happening to me. A guaranteed life path. An absolute truth. The job, the vocation, that would make it all come together, make it all okay.

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I wanted someone to erase what I saw as a fundamental betrayal, but the first betrayal, the original betrayal, had been by God. God betrayed me, exactly as he betrays all of us. That’s the fundamental human condition. Nobody has the power to erase that.

All these bold moves, shown to be mistakes. All these mentors, Gods, and parents, shown to be betrayers. All these desires for artmaking, shown to be mere algorithm food for the big machine. All this love of culture and fashion and travel and human experience, shown to be planet-damning consumption. This is the picture I had painted for myself. This is the thing that got balled up inside me, all together, which made me feel like it was futile to do anything, create anything, become anything. This, I have taken to referring to as The Knot.

I crafted it well. There’s no escape.

The thing is, I don’t know that life turns out exactly how we plan for any of us. The fact that I’m currently working a manual labor job at the airport may or may not be anybody’s fault (mine, if anyone’s), but I’m certainly not the only person working there who imagines they might be doing something else.

I made a sort of fundamental rich-whiny-kid attribution error. When I experienced this rage and pain at the split, the gap, in my life, I directed that rage out at people. I wanted to grab someone by the collar and demand that they explain the situation to me, and I think this energy could be felt in so many of my interactions. They had all said what they said when I was young with confidence, or what I perceived as confidence. I thought they all knew, and I felt rage when I found out they didn’t. But the older I get, the more I realize we’re all just trying to know small things, one small thing at a time. They were telling me the small things they thought they’d figured out. And there were some lifesaving morsels in there. And they gave me those gifts out of love.

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Nobody has the answer. Nobody has a map of the big plan on their wall. Nobody can fix the fundamental problem. We can only walk the road, together.

I have started to see this, finally. I have slowly and painfully started to open my eyes and see that we’re all dealing with this same question in various ways. We’re all struggling together. It is heartbreaking but it is also such a call to action. I can see the same desires, fears, pains, and hopes in the faces of the people around me, couched in their own stories. I see that sometimes I can help, just a little bit.

And I can see that if I grab somebody by the collar and shake them, they’re just going to repeat my same question back to me. Why? Why? Why?

We’re here. That is enough.

When I think about this, The Knot starts to loosen. I can start to see the individual strands of pain, that turn into a sort of pleasure as they relax. Not the pleasure of finding the ultimate solution, but the pleasure of finally and truly working on the real problem.

When I was very young, I indulged in a different sort of creativity. I drew a lot; I made up imaginary worlds. This art wasn’t focused toward an audience– maybe I liked showing my drawings to people, but I did them for myself. It wasn’t focused on money– maybe I imagined that someday I could have a career in art or video games, but I wanted that because I loved what I was doing and wanted to keep doing it.

Instead of being concerned about any of these things, I spent hours and hours alone in my room, drawing. I drew characters, I drew maps, I drew mysterious artifacts and weapons, I drew stories and mythologies and scenes of violence and romance. I imagined all the significant things I thought I might experience during my life, blown into a bright magnitude of form.

I told stories the same way I had heard stories– stories about heroism, stories about relationships, stories about the great unknown. I made creatures and experiences beyond the normal realms of life for myself, because I was an explorer. I did not demand answers. I did not want an algorithm to deliver the complete and optimal way to live my life. That felt like religion, and I wanted no part of it. I ran from answers. I was in love with the question.

I am still in love with the question. If I was not I would not still be here, because now I know there is nothing else. It’s a single, beautiful question. We help each other to look it in the face, and we answer it together.

It's Cold on the Red Planet

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Marvin the Martian is truly dangerous.

This makes him unique among Looney Tunes villains. One of the hallmarks of these cartoon antagonists – like Yosemite Sam, or Sylvester the cat, or Elmer Fudd, or Wile E. Coyote – is that they’re inept. They’re not as smart as our hero, and their stupidity ensures their defeat, no matter how much firepower they have.

As a consequence, our heroes, like Bugs or the Roadrunner, never really seem that worried. They’re coolly and casually outwitting these nasty characters. Brains triumph over brawn, and it’s satisfying to watch these puffed-up nimrods fall all over themselves and eventually blow themselves up.

As a result of World War II, the golden era of Bugs Bunny, we felt a comfortable certainty about the United States’ place in the larger world. We had helped to decisively end a global conflict – at least, this is the narrative we told ourselves. We had used The Bomb, and we had triumphed. Russia had sacrificed many more lives than we had while fighting the Nazis, but we allowed ourselves a certain tone of national celebration as victors in the Great War.

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Our position would grow rapidly less certain. We would face decades of silent tension with Russia, nukes pointed at each other, cushioned by a buffer of lies, spies, and subterfuge. The paranoia of McCarthyism ate the nation up from the inside. We began to suspect our own people, and to doubt our national identity – not only because of the internal disruptions of communism and antiwar protest, but because we began to realize that “victory” against Russia might only be possible if we were comfortable destroying the planet.

This new atmosphere of fear, uncertainty, and political ambiguity was not lost on Chuck Jones or Warner Brothers. These moods are all over Marvin the Martian’s appearances, and the classic WB cartoons that feature him span the Cold War precisely, from 1948 to the 1980s.

Bugs Bunny first encounters Marvin in Haredevil Hare, produced in 1948, just after the beginning of the Cold War. The feature opens with Bugs drafted into an experimental mission to the moon – and he’s terrified to go. The government has to drag him physically, then tempt him into the rocket with carrots.

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This is already a far cry from the pure patriotism of earlier WB cartoons. The government, instead of being an unambiguous purveyor of heroic purpose, is threatening and alien. They employ big machines and send us on missions; we know not where. Bugs seems genuinely frightened – a new mood for the bunny – and as a result, we’re somewhat frightened too.

Bugs arrives on the moon and attempts to claim it in the name of Earth...but Marvin arrives at the same time, to claim it in the name of Mars.

The Space Race, here, is prefigured by nearly a decade, and the terror of the Cold War is embodied in Marvin. In his paper "Oh, You Thing from Another World, You": How Warner Bros. Animators Responded to the Cold War,” cultural historian Michael Birdwell makes the point elegantly:

“Marvin is a denizen of the red planet, who wears a red shirt and sports a green helmet reminiscent of the expansionist Roman Empire. A faceless creature from Mars, Marvin reflected the perceptions of the Soviet Union many Americans held: that it was a country bent on global domination. Marvin wants more.”

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Mars is the planet of the war god, and Marvin is faceless and technologically nefarious, like the Soviet threat – from our perspective, a nation of spies, already infiltrating our own borders. Beneath Marvin’s helmet is a blank darkness with two blinking eyes, because the threat of communism could be anyone, anywhere, even here at home.

And in keeping with the creeping fear that began to pervade the nation under the threat of nuclear holocaust, Bugs’ fear begins to creep in, too. Upon encountering Marvin on the moon, he first acts nonchalant, like he does with all his other nemeses. But during the course of their amiable cross-species conversation, Marvin remarks offhandedly that his massively oversized weapon is being calibrated to blow up the Earth.

It takes a moment for the reality of the situation to sink in for Bugs. At first he remarks, “oh, nice day for it!” and wanders away, commenting on how brainy Marvin seems, how he’s likely to “get ahead in the moon.” To emphasize the insanity, we need a famous WB double-take: Bugs goes back and asks him again, then wanders off again. Only this second time does reality begin to assert itself. Bugs freaks out and starts to twitch.

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He rushes back to Marvin, grabs what Marvin calls the “Uranium PU-36 Explosive Space Modulator” (a clear reference to nuclear weaponry), and shouts at him, “You can’t do thaaaaaat! All the people I know are on the Earth!” Bugs, maybe for the first time ever, sounds genuinely frightened for those he loves. It’s very easy to draw a direct line from his frantic lament to those classic images of people cowering under their desks and building fallout shelters in their backyards. All the people we know, indeed: the nuclear threat was universal.

Motivated by this fear, Bugs then engages in a battle-of-wits with Marvin and his deputy (a large green Martian dog). But the end of the cartoon is ambiguous: instead of achieving clear triumph and superiority, Bugs detonates an explosive that blows up Marvin’s ship...and most of the moon along with it. In the very last shot, both he and Marvin are dangling from the thin, remaining crescent, and he screams at NASA over the radio: “GET ME OUT OF HERE!”

This world is too dangerous. He wants off.

This is a pattern repeated in just about every classic Marvin The Martian cartoon, as Michael Birdwell points out. In The Hasty Hare, Marvin comes to Earth to collect an “Earth creature” (Bugs, of course). Bugs first mistakes him for a trick-or-treater, but once he sees Marvin’s saucer, he twitches, unable to process this new, extra-terrestrial reality. Indeed, The Hasty Hare has a thread of insanity running through the whole episode: Bugs is captured and placed in a straight jacket, where he briefly imitates an unglued mental patient. Then, at the very end, when Bugs drags half the solar system back to earth behind his rogue saucer, the scientist he encounters as he pulls up to the Shalomar Observatory begins to twitch in the same way. The universe is impossibly out of alignment, and the only sane reaction is to crack up.

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Hasty Hare debuted in 1952, the year after Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of stealing nuclear and military secrets for the Soviet Union from the United States, and the year before they were both executed in the electric chair. It must have seemed like a mad world: two apparently normal American citizens were passing incredibly destructive secrets to America’s mortal enemy. Why would this happen? Hence, Hasty Hare’s preoccupations with kidnapping, mutiny (at one point, Bugs accuses Marvin’s dog-lieutenant of being mutinous) and insanity. The anxiety of the era builds.

Nobody in the Looney Tunes universe, though, embodies anxiety quite like the neurotic, raw-nerve Daffy Duck. At some point, the overconfident Bugs became an inadequate symbol for our confused national character. Thence arrived: Duck Dodgers in the 24½ᵗʰ Century.

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Duck Dodgers is a pure symphonic farce of mutually assured destruction. Daffy, the spastic, rage-filled egomaniac of the Looney Tunes universe, is sent on a mission by Earth’s sci-fi era space command (capped by an enormous surveilling eyeball) to claim the last galactic supply of the Shaving Cream Atom, from the mysterious Planet X. Marvin, once again, arrives at the same time to claim the same planet.

In the following few minutes, Daffy and Marvin deploy a truly staggering arsenal of escalating weapons and byzantine communications technologies in an effort to one-up each other to death. In the final scene, each is sequestered in their respective rocket ship, and each rocket ship is surrounded by an embedded array of explosives controlled by the other character. Predictably, they both detonate all the bombs at the same time.

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After the explosion, Marvin and Daffy are perched on a tiny rock– all that’s left of Planet X. Daffy repeats his line from the beginning of the episode: “There just ain’t room on this planet for the two of us!” and boots Marvin off. As Marvin dangles from Porky, who’s dangling from the rock, Daffy exclaims “I claim this planet in the name of Earth!” and Porky rolls his eyes, and intones: “big deal.” Fade to black.

It would be difficult to imagine a more damning satire of American-Soviet nuclear relations. Both sides are following their obsessive program of global domination, and at the end, there’s nothing left of the planet to fight over. This winner of this war gets the ultimate booby prize.

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Things in Marvin-land continue in this vein all the way through to the end of the Cold War. During the Cuban missile crisis, Mad as a Mars Hare showed Bugs Bunny mutating into an enormous neanderthal version of himself. And while peering through his telescope at the planet Earth, Marvin utters the line:

“There is a growing tendency to think of man as a rational, thinking being, which is absurd. There is simply no evidence of any intelligence on the Earth.”

Eventually, the slow disintegration of the USSR, and everyone’s exhaustion with the global deadlock, leaked into Marvin’s animated universe. By 1980, Daffy Duck was confronting Gossamer, a giant beastly sidekick of Marvin’s that, when shaved, turned out to be made entirely of hair with nothing underneath. Spaced Out Bunny, released the same year, began with Bugs intoning, “The trouble with this world is that everybody’s out to get everybody else.” By 1989, the Berlin Wall had fallen.

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Considering that Marvin’s stories debuted during the height of McCarthyism and communist paranoia, their near-open nose-thumbing at the absurdity of the conflict and the cold maliciousness of the American government (in sending our main characters on their warped and doomed missions of conquest and destruction, almost à la Vietnam) is all the more brazen and impressive. Though Jack Warner of Warner Brothers abetted the Hollywood blacklist and cheered on McCarthy’s witch-hunt, even he had his limits. When criticized over the production of Mission to Moscow, a film depicting Russia’s contributions to World War II, he testified:

“The Warner Brothers interest in the preservation of the American way of life is no new thing to our company. Ever since we began making motion pictures we have fostered American ideals and done what we could to protect them. One of those American principles is the right to gripe and criticize in an effort to improve. The right to gripe is not enjoyed under communist dictatorships. To surrender that privilege under pressure would betray our American standards. We can't fight dictatorships by borrowing dictatorial methods”

It’s possible that this tiny bit of wiggle-room gave Chuck Jones and the rest of the Looney Tunes maestros space to do their zeitgeist-skewering work. Chuck himself is quoted as saying:

"My wise wife, Marian, believes that somebody just as idiotic as Daffy may have his nervous hand on just such a believable lever."

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It’s important to watch these cartoons, not just to read about them here. Because even more than the explicit metaphors and direct allusions to nuclear destruction, the mood in these animated works tells us about the mood of the times.

Everything is topsy-turvey, and the music is zany and bombastic simultaneously. Bureaucracies, both on Earth and on Mars, are depicted as massive, stupid, and malicious. References to the empty, brand-obsessed consumerism of the 50s and 60s litter each episode, and the characters run around totally fixated with the importance of their mission, which from the outside always appears unbelievably petty and small (in one cartoon, Daffy is sent on a crucial mission to save the universe’s supply of yo-yo polish. He exclaims “this is even more serious than I’d been led to believe!”)

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It’s useful, too, to identify this lens so that we can more thoroughly recognize the lens of our own time. Rick and Morty portrays evil as diffuse and capricious, scattered throughout an absurd and godless universe, instead of being focused around a single conflict. The characters struggle with anxiety and existential emptiness, and numb themselves with drugs. Technology complicates their lives and their relationship with themselves, and creates as many problems as it solves.

In Bojack Horseman, mental illness and addiction are exacerbated and distorted by the crazed funhouse-mirror of media-obsessed culture. The personal histories of the characters always come back to haunt them, and the bizarre and singular lives they lived pre-internet are always intruding on their current social media self-promotion-blitz via the inconvenient mechanisms of trauma and memory. And in Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos resembles a malicious human force or person far less than he resembles the cold, inexorable ecological disaster of climate change.

Once we see these patterns, we can see our times and terrors a little more clearly, and through tracing them, we can perhaps outline the things our civilization desperately needs. When assessed in the aggregate like this, we have a startling ledger of collective anxiety in our popular media. But maybe this bird’s-eye-view is the first step in finding solutions to some of these problems. Maybe someday we’ll get to make a cartoon about a world without fear.