The Turkey

The grocery store turkey’s evolution from the wild turkey is an echo of our journey from our wilder, free-range origins.  The wild turkey, whose intelligence caused Benjamin Franklin to recommend it for our national bird, is a far cousin of the overbred, overmedicated artifice that is the plastic wrapped bird that you plunk into your grocery cart. In the passage from our free-range origins to our over-cultivated existence, are we just overbred, overstuffed turkeys? Three things confirm this: the outsourcing of our basic food functions, the reduction of work into processes, and no reduction of stress from our surrender.

Outsourcing of Basic Food Functions

The wild turkey is known to be the most cunning of birds, requiring stealth and deceit to bring it close enough for a shot. I would assume the human in the original state of nature to be no different and no less intelligent. The urban legend is that the domesticated turkey is so stupid that they can’t be left out in the rain because they look up when hit on the head with raindrops, subsequently drowning. While this is untrue of domesticated turkeys, it may be true of domesticated humans, Homo sapiens sapiens familiaris.

We use to hunt for our food or gather it from the fields and forests. At a critical point, we domesticated the game and started farming the fruits and vegetables that sustained us, creating enough surplus calories to sustain larger populations that could then specialize in crafts, trades, and services, to where eventually the majority of the population could outsource food production to a minority of the people. If you’re lucky, you can buy a luscious apple out of season brought in by jet transport directly to your Costco from the Antipodes. This is not too much different from the turkey who willingly or unwillingly entered into the similar bargain with humans. In doing so, the turkey increased its population to an estimated 660 million turkeys currently in the world –technically a raging success on the chromosomal level. The outsourcing of the finding of food proved to be a Faustian bargain for the turkey whose life is rendered short and brutal. Depending on your outlook, the human bargain is no less Faustian because there are 6.8 billion humans, the majority of which now depend on this outsourced food production. If you are reading this on the internet, you are clearly benefiting from this arrangement. The recent economic downturn shows how easy it is to fall from the grace afforded by this system. If you can’t afford the fancy fruits, vegetables, and viands, you are stuck eating the processed corn and petroleum byproducts offered as stock feed for the masses.

 

Reduction of work into processes

Somewhere the idea of work, trade, and craft as virtuous activities became lost as the management professions became elevated. I remember having dinner right out of college with a bunch of young lawyers and consultants in Boston, none over the age of thirty. All were entrusted in some way with managing, valuing, judging, and giving advice on billions of dollars, thus affecting the lives of many people. None of these guys had really worked a day in their lives (including me except maybe stocking groceries throughout high school), but were clearly inside some kind of membrane that separated them from everyone else who did have to work for a wage and save a lifetime to afford a lifestyle that these young men were having straight out of college. One boasted that the yearly return on their fund outstripped the gross national product of whole countries, reaching for some kind of irony that I used to think was cool and now I think is depressing.

I have nothing against capitalism, and know second-hand through my parents and my wife’s parents the horrors of totalitarian communism, but there is a problem when theory trumps practice. Business management allows the reduction of any human activity into processes. The inputs and outputs of these processes can be tabulated, analyzed, and optimized. The logical end result is a human worker confinement pen like the factories in Shenzhen that make my gadgets –the workers live in dormitories adjacent to the factories allowing them to run 24/7. What we are witnessing is the ongoing triumph of totalitarian capitalism, and we’re going to either compete with China on their level or borrow furiously to maintain our relatively luxurious, free-range confinement pens. Neither is palatable to a country having just ended America’s Century in the dust cloud of falling towers.

 

No Reduction of Stress From Our Surrender

The majority of us don’t worry about food because it’s always there in the mega-mart, piled high and cheap. By surrendering our food production, we give up a load of stress but gain new ones. The ancestral stresses of hunger, climate, fear, and disease have been swapped for financial, social, and domestic stress. We outsourced our security functions to the local constabulary and our military, but rather than bask in security, we worry about terrorists at home and an endless war abroad. This stress is basically the same stress that the Thanksgiving turkey feels confined to a few square feet among thousands of other turkeys. That turkey fears not the fox, coyote, or bear, but it must feel something is terribly wrong with its world.

 

Taking It Back

The populist anti-elitism that elevated the dancing Palin against far more qualified, limber, and graceful competitors bears poorly for America’s continued excellence. The problem is not with the elites, but with the complicity of the turkeys in their continued confinement. Rather than cheap corn and petroleum based feed, they should demand the variety of diet that was available only two generations ago right out of small family farms and home vegetable gardens. Rather than dismiss food reform as the socialist dalliance of elitists, people should confront the source of their predicament.

The second half of this is the realization that the solution to outsourcing is In-Sourcing –which means work. It means that the service industry jobs that move quants and utils over the intertubes must be abandoned for work, trade, and craft. It means taking it down a notch as a society and lowering expectations while elevating living. It means a lot more people working in food production and repopulating small towns. It means reconnecting with community and family rather than moving every three years from Charlotte to Atlanta to Houston to Tampa to Denver. It means sweeping, hoeing, weeding, hunting, fishing, gathering.

Worse catastrophes have happened to people –go ask the Carthaginians when you’re in line in purgatory. People want a return to the past, to the golden age of the 50’s and early 60’s. What we’ll get is the 1920’s and 30’s. If you aren’t Howard Hughes, it’ll be a lot of work after work, with canning in the fall.

 

Dawn of the Dead -is all about us.

I recently watched the remake of Dawn of the Dead on Hulu while on call. In general, I find the horror genre either to be a thinly veiled subcategory of Chick Lit or generally too scary to watch. The first category, the horror Chick Lit or Chick Flick, are all the romantic vampire stories and beauty with beast fables. They are dreck even when an auteur like Joss Whedon labors to make them watchable. Something dark lies in the feminine psyche for fantasies about blood sucking, pasty faced, pretty boy immortals sells. The latter, the truly scary horror, deals in the supernatural. In the heart of all rational people, there is a primitive spot that wonders if there is good and evil and not just cause and effect. When a film taps this, and reveals the frightening voids and yawning chasms presented by contemplation and imagining of evil, even this fairly rational and educated surgeon can get a twee scared watching The Grudge in the dark (she looks like an ex-girlfriend).

But zombie movies? Not so! For some reason, I love them because I’m a doctor. The slow zombie era of Cesar Romero came to an end with the fast zombies of 28 Days Later (and its sequel, 28 Weeks Later). Zombie movies appeal to my inner infectious disease expert. In some way, I deal with the necrosis and suppuration every week, and seeing hordes of diseased people doesn’t seem too scary. It then boils down to how the undiseased people react in these circumstances which entertains me: by denying, by panicking, by getting armed, by having sex (more denial), and by getting oddly rational. When HIV began killing people in the late 80’s, the response was not unlike the plot of a zombie movie. There was fatal ignorance and denial, followed by panic, then calls for concentration camps, followed a neurotic mix of hedonism, consumerism, prudishness, and rampant heterosexualism. The collective sigh of relief was the announcement by Dr. Ho of multidrug therapy, as conceptualized by the not-gay and not down-low Magic Johnson just staying alive.

The most recent remake of Dawn of the Dead makes great fun with these concepts. The survivors of the plague hole up in a shopping mall, and all the zombies congregate there and mill about outside the locked entrances. And its the same now in the time of the economic plague that I see hordes milling about at our local mall. Despite the recession, the place is always full. I think people go there because going to the mall and shopping is a talisman of normalcy. After the horrible events of 9/11, President Bush told everyone to go shopping. Shopping! And that is what I see going on, the continued shopping for a little slice of happiness, is not unlike the zombies congregating at the mall in Dawn of the Dead. “I think its some retained memory they have that brings them here,” says one of the characters.

As a medical student, I was assigned patients and was their intern, responsible for their health. Never mind that most of them had HIV and were crack abusers, making them somewhat unstable. I learned to have a conversation with them, those who in another era would have been called possessed and unclean. I took the lessons of the plaque dedicated to the twenty medical students who died in the influenza pandemic of 1918, and understood implicitly the bargain I had to make. To be a good physician, I would have to take good care of all people. I performed central lines and spinal taps in poorly lit rooms on patients whose viral titres made them frankly toxic to be around with a needle, a scalpel, or broken glass (from lidocaine vials). I learned equanimity in the face of really horrible things like the gal who hid a roll of dollar bills in her abscess (pocket of pus) cavity on her lower abdomen. She’d pay for crack with those filthy bills and earned them by doing who knows what. If that trumps zombies, I don’t know what. I always wash my hands after touching money.

Eddie Murphy had a claymation animation sit-com in the 90’s called the PJ’s. It featured a crack addict who was spot on and completely true. Ironically, he was the straight man, and dished wisdom while eying the pigeons for a possible meal. The great tragedy in the AIDs/Crack epidemic of the 90’s was its victims who made to the hospital after living on the streets for years were incredible specimens. They had to be to survive for as long as they did. They were all tall, lean, and if you looked past the insanity, wear, tear, and grime, were usually good looking with good bone structure -think Na’Vi, twenty years after the aliens from Earth returns to Pandora, colonize them, and put them on reservations with their sensory pony tails cut and cauterized at the stump.

We forget that the heroes of the Zombie movies are in fact, the Zombies. Once infected and left to wander around for fresh brain, they are the perfect citizenry. Their behavior is predictable, and their intentions are true. They offer no political resistance by asking no questions, and their happiness lies in fresh brains. Substitute fresh brains for fresh fruit out of season, perfectly-red meat packed in styrofoam and plastic, and giant homes in the suburbs, and you have it. The real monsters in Zombie movies are the protagonists, they with their guns and fire, keeping the thronging mobs from their happiness and fulfillment.

So stop being a wet noodle! Go, run out and buy yourself some Zombie pickle and get happy! A good place to start: On January 27th, Apple will present their next great thing, by the way, you happy Zombie.