“Iron Sharpens Iron”


Chris Sullins (November 9, 2009)


I have to admit I’m one of those people who make mental notes of who is doing what as they drive through the neighborhood.  It’s not that I know the people and am looking for some kind of juicy gossip to pass along in a later conversation with an interested third party.  I often keep most of this seemingly superfluous data inside of my own head unless I bring it up as comment to an immediate family member. 


Most people really wouldn’t care about how much wood the Smiths have stacked up, how many people the Browns have hunting on their land, or that the house the Jones family moved away from still has a for sale sign out front a year later.  For the most part this activity of storing and recalling my real life observations is only a form of mental exercise.  Like running and weightlifting for my physical body, this is a simple way to keep my episodic memory in shape through regular practice.


As with most data there can be consequences with the unintended release and reinterpretation of it by other people.  This happened over the summer when one of my children saw one of our neighbors and commented out loud “Mow to live, live to mow.”  I asked what she meant by that and she replied “That’s what you said to mommy the last time you saw that person mowing.”  This reply was enough to cue my memory of a conversation I had with my wife a few weeks earlier.


I recalled I had seen this person cutting his grass at least twice a week over the summer and that even on rainy cloud-filled days the underground sprinkler system was watering his lawn twice per day.  I had said to my wife that this person would only have to mow once per week “at most” if he reduced watering his lawn to no more than every other day.  I also noted the summer weather had been unusually cool and rainy compared to the previous decades I remembered.  In the summer of 2009 the local vegetation had done well and presented beautiful shades of green over the entire summer given only our cloud-based precipitation.


I had stated to my wife this neighbor wasn’t the only person who did the extra watering and mowing in our area.  I had noticed other nearby homes had sprinklers running each day.  A similar ritual followed at least twice per week as someone would ride atop a lawnmower as the sun set in the cool evening.  I said something to the effect that these people spent all their leisure time on their lawn mowers and added “They mow to live, live to mow.”


I expressed my observation that the grass in the yards of the recently abandoned and defaulted-back-to-the-bank homes only grew enough to require cutting once every two weeks, were never watered and didn’t turn brown once the entire summer.  I wondered out loud to my wife if the people who were watering daily and mowing twice per week would still be doing so if they paid for water by the gallon of if the price of gasoline had remained as high as it had been in the summer of 2008.


As with most of our conversations regarding my innocuous data collection, my wife nodded a few times and commented on a point she agreed with in this case:  gasoline was indeed expensive last summer.  Much to the benefit of our continued marital bliss that day, I had avoided bringing up anything to do with politics or religion.  For the reader I’ll leave my tangential thoughts on the attraction of opposites and how to balance the extreme difference in gravity between the human male and female for a later essay.


Readers of my earlier essays are familiar with my tendency to make personal observations peppered with some historical asides before skipping over to address current global concepts which currently affect us all.  Like a common law couple, war and economics are inseparable partners on the world stage and I have no problem being one of the many political paparazzi who follow them.  During this pursuit I often try to illuminate some sort of unintended consequences of mankind’s artificial systems. 


However, I also try to snap a picture that shows the negatives outcomes which were in fact foreseeable had all the available data been taken into honest account beforehand.  When it comes to large scale human social systems, I crop and frame the final piece by pointing out the bias of blind leaders and highlighting the unadjusted orders which sent entire companies hurling themselves one after another against the impenetrable wall of long sharp spears arranged in phalanx formation.


Charles Mackay commented back in 1841 that madness among human herds comes to a temporary stop only after enough people have come back to their senses.  One by one the proverbial tipping point is slowly reached until the entire group follows along with concrete action.  We see this happening again in our own time in some physical locations and zones of human thought.


I’d like to use another concrete example of long term decision-making within a single human lifespan and how choices relate to supposedly unforeseen consequences.  For many people the next topic will cause finely tuned needles of sociopolitical bias to get closed circuit checks and one finger readied to hit the “back” button away from this essay.  Please bear with me as I hope to use the next situation to further illustrate the previous point that had used grass.


I’ve turned to British newspapers over the last 15 years to give me news which the American mainstream media in all its forms tends to overlook, actively ignore, or completely fail to connect the separate dots via even simple one page editorials.  The British news has done a good job covering advances in fertility treatment fueled by the demand for older women who want to have children for the first time as well as some stories on recent research which suggests those older women are more likely to bear children with some sort of defect. 


Before readers on one end of the spectrum get nervous that this essay is going to judge and then demand restrictions on reproductive timing, let me be clear that I’m only going to ask some questions and make a few speculations based only on the natural timeline of a woman and her later desire to have children.  Likewise, I hope readers from the other end of the spectrum don’t misconstrue that I’m subtly advocating some sort of Brave New World approach to reproductive medicine.


So why would a woman wait until her forties to have a child in the first place?  Most of the time this delay seems due to the time needed to complete an advanced education followed by a slow move up the career ladder.  After many years in her professional field the woman feels she’s finally at a sufficient place of economic and social stability which allows her to balance her next intended role as a mother.  This new role may or may not even include a long-term adult partner.  I won’t get into all the possible combinations of factors and the juggling involved, but what can not be denied is that her biological alarm clock has gone off.


Another fact which can not be denied is simple biology and what a human body is capable of achieving –which tips more and more each year toward not doing things as well as it once did.  This is especially true when it comes to a mother’s age and pregnancy, fetal development and its risks, and to the physical delivery itself which presents another set of risks to mother and child.  Although some external factors related to relatively short term economics have often been taken into careful consideration; the life of a new family unit over the normal course of time as the child matures, the longevity of the mother’s career and social support network, and how it all fits together within the increasingly elapsed lifespan of the mother sometimes seems to be an afterthought. 


This leads me back to reconsidering the supposed efficacy of waiting twenty years before having kids which by this later time now requires expensive medical assistance (via fertility treatment), an associated risk of increased problems for the fetus, and a dwindling social support system over time.  It sounds a bit circular to ask again why she didn’t have kids back in her twenties when both conception and delivery were relatively less complicated and the baby more likely to be healthy when I had already laid out some likely reasons a couple paragraphs back.  But, the kneejerk question still can’t be avoided: was anything really made easier for the would-be mother by waiting twenty years or more?


This leads to additional questions and a consideration of attitudes rather than physical factors which could have been changed earlier in the sequence of time.  Is mid to late life really the best time to have and raise children?  Is this what human female biology was geared to do over the last few thousand generations?  The answers to those two questions are quite simple, but depending on the emotions involved they will be qualified with the added “but” and a lengthy explanation. 


Academic debates aside, while our medical technology might allow us to leap over one hurdle, there always seems to be a deep hole waiting on the other side.  This leaves the practitioners of new technology scrambling to fill the hole with sand as they search for yet another method to safely bridge the gap.  However, as some side debate ensues next to the obstacle and the sand-filled area over whether or not man should try and ape God, the rain begins to fall turning the covered hole into quicksand. 


The next runner with the baton around the track leaps over the hurdle and immediately finds herself entrenched up to her chin in pudding-like dirt.  Unlike the Royal Bank of Scotland commercial http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l11sjuwHJCc where a committee quickly helps the sinking person out of the quicksand, the real consequences of many human decisions are often decades and sometimes centuries away from being commonly realized.  By then the deciders of policy have always left the building and sometimes left behind a field of victims.


I hope to have used the specific examples of lawns and babies as a laser pointer to put the red dot on a larger overhead screen.  My goal was simply to inspire some critical thought about our decision-making processes and their long term effects.  It’s a complex thing and as more people have slowly come to understand again in this generation, all of our systems both man-made and natural are interconnected. 


Unfortunately, we have difficulty even speaking about relatively simple things with one another which have apparently little impact on our collective lives.  This is usually because people on all sides consciously avoid discussing hot-button issues which everyone knows in advance often cause real conflict.  However, I seriously doubt many of the people who felt compelled to over-water their lawns and commit themselves to many extra hours mowing each week this past summer took the time to fully explore the factors causing their increased activity in the first place.


I’m not trying to sound pejorative, but I wonder how many of them actually saw any difference in the weather between this summer and last summer and then took the time to consider if their ritualized mowing routine needed any change as a result.  Since I can easily imagine the circular and potentially sharp argument that could ensue if I personally suggested the adjustment of one factor regarding the mowing of their suburban lawns, how much worse I wondered would their reaction be to suggestions of change on the front end of their lives’ timelines regarding more complex equations involving careers and children? 


I could easily take these analogies to larger and more complex systems which are in severe need of adjustment and which despite calls for “change” have seen nothing new happen.  Without going into detail it should suffice that what I see being advocated for many complex social and economic issues currently facing us is little more than turning up the sprinkler or gobbling another handful of pills in the hope of producing something new.  Such decisions continue to be advocated by many so-called experts who haven’t fully considered what the rain will bring tomorrow.  In the meantime they stand by with a shovel and another wheelbarrow of sand ready to cover up their mistakes.


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Chris Sullins is the author of the strategic action thriller “Operation SERF” http://www.oftwominds.com/opSERF/OP-serf.html.  If you’ve enjoyed reading this essay, please consider making a donation to the http://www.oftwominds.com/ website.  Charles Hugh Smith has graciously provided space for it on his website for your reading enjoyment. 

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