Friday the 13th has always been a lucky day for me, oddly enough. I got my first horse on Friday the 13th, and 13 was my number when I had my biggest win with him while showing. This Friday the 13th was no exception to that rule for me, since that was when I stumbled across the Caverns of Sonora. I was just doing a simple google maps search for a camping spot near Ft. Stockton, TX, and there it was amongst the options. Someone gave it such a glowing review that I went to look it up — and that’s when I found out it was smaller but also more active and more beautiful than Carlsbad Caverns.
Now I’m sitting on the gift store’s long veranda in the shade, with just a touch of breeze, since the next tour isn’t until 1 pm. There’s a faint bit of pleasant radio, and closer by the lovely sound of running water from the sluice set up for the tourists. I’ve showered (always a win) and eaten (another plus) and have a drink near me and the prospect of an ice cream treat later. There are peafowl foraging nearby and a swallow glaring suspiciously at me from over the edge of her little mud-daubed nest. Aside from the occasional tourist, it’s remarkably peaceful. I may spend another night.
Mmm… Nestles’ crunch ice cream bar — haven’t had one since I was a kid. Funny how we forget how to savor simple pleasures as we “grow up.” In some ways I think Vegas is a perfect example of this: gotta be always brighter, louder, blonder, faster, shinier… it certainly gets the heart rate elevated, but I’m not sure a steady diet of it is that satisfying. Listening to some newly arrived tourists around the corner of the veranda, who are yelling and laughing and making noise just because they can, I’m astonished at how important speed and noise and activity is to these people. I wonder if what Vegas and places like it really do is camouflage internal emptiness.
That brings up an interesting question, though: what is it the people in Vegas are so feverishly seeking. My guess is that it is power, as expressed through money. In this culture money certainly equals power, though that is not universally the case for all humans. I remember how startled and confused I was when I first read a book that postulated a completely gift-based economy — I think it was Voyage into Yesteryear or something like that. It was a libertarian science fiction story, and it really rocked my world. Up to that point I hadn’t been able to even conceive of a world without money.
Since then I’ve also learned that, for example, in some forms of Hinduism monetary wealth is something that the ritually polluted may have, such as butchers. The truly virtuous, however (such as some of the Brahmin caste), do not worry about money — it is not a means of social power in their culture. In fact, feeding those poor but highly virtuous and socially powerful individuals is one of the ways lower caste individuals who happen to have more money can gain virtue. I’m reminded also of the Timbisha Shoshone elder (I wish I’d caught her name in the video, darnit) who said, “There is no culture without land.” The tribe lives in Death Valley, after all, and believe themselves the caretakers of their land; I sincerely doubt money is considered a means of social virtue for them.
So… it would appear it is not gold or land alone that’s a human imperative — money just happens to be the socially inscribed means of power within US culture. Even here, though, there are those who recognize the inherent and personally damaging limitations of this form of power. It forms a hierarchy: I am more powerful than you if I have more money than you — but the problem with hierarchies is that they’re unstable. You have to constantly struggle to stay on top, and there are always those fighting and clawing to outpace you. Hence Vegas, I suppose.
Thinking about it, though, even that isn’t the fullness of it. Money is not the only “virtue” which is directly applicable to power within this culture. If that were the case, anyone with money would be on top — but when you examine those who are the movers and shakers in this culture, you see a prevalence of older white males. Compared to statistics within US culture, there aren’t a representative number of women or people of color who are powerfully rich. That’s not a surprise, of course — we’ve known for centuries that power tends to aggregate amongst itself — but it does clearly show the limitations of hierarchical forms of power, such as the accumulation of money. To whit: if you’re just a white guy, the odds are against you becoming a powerfully rich individual — but if you are female and/or of color, the odds are immensely stacked against you.
To hide this troubling inequity, of course, the culture teaches us that all you have to do is work hard and you’ll end up rich and powerful too — despite continuing and increasing empirical evidence to the contrary. What’s really tragic about this meme is its natural corollary: if you’re not rich and powerful, it is therefore your fault. This is a form of “blaming the victim” which I particularly despise, especially in the current economy, where people who have been laid off by corporations as a “cost-cutting” exercise are on average having to search for 10 months before they can find another job.
It seems to me we need a different form of virtue to be culturally extolled. I was sitting in a Ft. Stockton McDonald’s yesterday and couldn’t help overhearing the TV. It was on the sports channel — of course; I was in Texas, after all — and everyone was all excited about the newly signed contract of a football player, and comparing it to other similar contracts. I don’t remember the details, but the guy was signing with the New Orleans football team and had something like a guaranteed 66 million dollars for the next couple of years.
It was… nauseating. On an international level, we’re supposedly the leading industrialized nation in the world — but we’re the absolute last ranked in things like making sure our children are not born into poverty, and have clean water and good food to eat. Locally, New Orleans itself is still struggling to recover from Katrina — what would a “paltry” million or two do to help those in need? It is horribly breathtaking, in such a situation, to hear an untried boy, who has certain socially admired physical capabilities, is being given that amount of money.
And they say prostitution is illegal in this country?