Helter Skelter

Right ascension 06h 45m 08.9173s declination −16° 42′ 58.017″ in the constellation Canis Majoris sits Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. A binary system, the colloquial name for Sirius is the dog star, and it is an ill omen. Those hellish dog days of summer, when the sweat pools and the hungry files swarm owe their name to the pre-dawn arrival of the beast star, Lucifer, light-bringer, the scourge of nations. 

I have never been able to stare directly into its light. For me, the evil omen vanishes when viewed dead-on. Only when I shift my gaze five or ten degrees away can I glimpse its hideous twinkle with my naked eye. It is a statistical oddity peculiar to the distribution of beliefs among humans and their propensity to believe the uncanny, the uncorroborated, and the implausible that when I write with all honesty that the night prior to the following events I have stood outside my home gazing upon Orion’s lapdog, pondering the mystery poured into the dead light by the baleful intent of my forgotten ancestry.

  • The January 28, 1986 explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Sixth grade. Central California. I couldn’t sleep because we were going to choose an instrument to play in band class later that week and I was torn between the tuba and the bass or baritone saxophone. So I woke early, crept outside and mesmerized myself with the odd, slippery taunting of Sirius.
  • April 29, 1992, the first day of the spectacular six-day riots that engulfed Los Angeles following the failure of the District Attorney to obtain the assault and excessive force convictions of four police officers in the beating of a man named Rodney King. I don’t recall what woke me to wander outside on this spring morn, but I do remember pleasant weather with clear, crisp skies. Ideal for idle New England stargazing.
  • September 11, 2001, the day the Republic sustained its fatal wound. My wife was still in Lithuania. She had an appointment in the Warsaw embassy to get her final paperwork in order. I thought it odd that she’d have to go all the way to Warsaw to conduct her interviews and get her signatures, but I guess the consulate in Vilnius lacked the appropriate credentials to issue permanent resident status. Perhaps because this stargazing episode occurred as an adult, its memory stuck with me more than the other two. I recall with greater detail my failed attempts to bottle the morning star’s dread effervescent charm in my eye and how the time ticked by. It later occurred to me that the hijackers must have been boarding their doomed flights while I was calmly regarding light barfed from bright Sirius A right about the time I was signing my paperwork to join the Navy. Over the intervening years, I’ve tried considering the many hidden links between starlight, the limits of human attention, the nature of associative power and pareidolia, and plain, unadorned coincidence. I have yet to reach a satisfactory conclusion, despite having probed the question longer than it’s taken the light that was just leaving Sirius A to splash past the earth the last time I turned my gaze in its direction.

You have no reason to take me at my word. I can produce no physical evidence that will convince you I am telling the truth. I have my word that these three instances are the only times in my life I’ve devoted scrutiny to the celestial representation of the Abrahamic God’s adversary, Lucifer, First among the Host, greatest of the Seraphim, and First of the Fallen.

Brigit: “Wrong association.”

Me: “I beg your pardon?”

Brigit: “You’ve mixed up your astronomy and your Latin. Also your Hebrew, I suppose.”

Me: “Explain.”

Brigit: “Lucifer was associated with the planet Venus. Sirius was important to agricultural societies since its appearance at dawn is invariant with the seasons. It shows up when the weather turns bad, the Nile floods, and the season of pestilence is at its peak. Venus is just a symbol. It’s a bright, shiny thing in the sky, so it gets a lot of attention.” By now, Brigit was able to tie a proper bowline in less than a second, like any seasoned sailor. And she had taken to scrambling topside barefoot in hitched capri pants and one of Clay’s tied-off dress shirt. If you didn’t know any better, you’d look at her low-slung ponytail and conclude that she’d been at home on the Kingston right alongside Calico Jack, Anne Bonny, and Mary Read.

Me: “So Sirius isn’t considered bad luck?”

Brigit: “It is, but it’s bad luck from antiquity. Homer mentioned it in The Iliad. The Achaean army advanced toward Troy in late summer. Bad luck for Paris.”

Anika: “Isn’t Paris in France?”

Brigit: “You know, I’m not sure if there’s a connection there.” She slid the jib cleat forward a few inches and the tiny flutter in the main died down. Her shoulders squared noticeably at the little accomplishment. “Paris the city is about 2500 years old. Paris the Homeric character is about 300 years older than that. But it’s unlikely that the two are connected. If you’re still curious, we can try looking for an etymological dictionary when we get to Portland.”

Clay: “We’re going to Portland? Why would we do that?”

Brigit: “Aren’t we? Why wouldn’t we?”

Me: “It’s not really on the way. We’d have to sail up the Columbia to get there, and the mouth of that river is beastly. Coast Guard cutters used to practice their heavy sea state drills in those waters. It’s a lot safer to head out to deeper waters and just sail around.” My ankle was almost completely healed, but there was a residual numbness below the knee that bothered me. I could move my foot, but with a great deal less dexterity than I was accustomed.

Anika: “What’s a emytologica-whatsit dictionary?” Clotho had his head on her lap and his tail was thumping in time to the swell of the ocean.

Brigit: “It tells you the likely origin of words.”

Anika: “We had a dictionary on the farm. Nobody ever used it much.”

Clay: “That’s what we call an ‘evergreen statement,’ Annie.” I didn’t like the nickname, but Anika didn’t seem to mind. There must be a word somewhere for feeling prickly about third-party diminutives.I resolved to give the issue my full, undivided attention in the event that we ended up in a Portland library.

Me: “It’s your turn for a story, Clay.” If my head was getting itchy, I knew everyone else’s was too. Anika’s keen eyes had already picked out a suitable place to drop anchor for the night. We had about half a story’s worth of time till anchorage, and this time of day, the buzz was at its worst.

Clay: “You mentioned pareidolia.” We all waited for Anika to interject. She did not. Clay continued. “Pareidolia means seeing familiar patterns that arise naturally.” Still nothing. Anika crouched lithely just aft of the mast, silently peering towards the shore. “Like when you see a dog butthole that looks like a face or Jesus in a burnt piece of toast.” If there were crickets offshore, surely they would have played us a bawdy reel. “Hm. Okay. Well, non-informative patterns go a lot farther than seeing a happy face in the winch over there.” I glanced at where he was pointing and sure enough, the little friction brake offset the ends of the catch pins to make a happy face just outside the bushing case. “You see it in data all the time, not just in coincidences with stars.”

Me: “What, you mean like Type I errors?”

Clay: “Uh, I think so. Remind me the difference.”

Me: “Remember that for hypothesis testing you always set your null to be something along the lines of ‘there’s no difference between the control and the treatment.'” Clay nodded. Anika still held her tongue. “A Type I error is when the null is true, but your statistical tests show that it’s false. It’s usually called a false positive.” This was aimed at Anika. “A Type II error is a false negative, when your tests fail to discern a relationship that really is there.”

Clay: “That’s one instance, yes. Another is faulty inference. People used to buy ice cream in the summer months, therefore ice cream causes warm weather, or there was something cute about pirates and global temperatures or something. I forget the details. You see this a lot with studies on the benefits of going to college.” Brigit rolled her eyes at this.

Brigit: “This again? You still haven’t adequately explained to me why you think the purpose of higher education is…”

Clay: “‘was'”

Brigit: “…the purpose of higher education was to give people useful job skills. Why can’t you accept that there -was-” the pointed emphasis she put on the past tense was one part melancholy and one part irked, “a perfectly good set of reasons to maintain the unbroken chain of Western canon? And that part of the cost of subsidizing research whose value isn’t immediately obvious includes subsidizing obvious junk.”

Anika: “What do you mean?” Finally, evidence she was paying attention.

Brigit: “Differential equations.” She adopted what seemed to be a momentary, triumphant smirk. “Otherwise idle 18th century French mathematicians spent years solving whatever differential equations they could get their hands on. None of these equations had any practical value at the time. They were mere salon exercises, ways to pass the time, mere excuses for their otherwise shameful aristocratic sinecures. And the solutions they published in these gigantic volumes,” she held her hands apart as far as they would stretch, “proved useful for a whole bunch of later 20th century projects ranging from the development of the atom bomb to the study of gravitational lensing in outer space, allowing astronomers to map the contours of the visible universe.”

Me: “Well, that whole atom bomb thing didn’t work out all that well, did it?”

Brigit: “It’s easy to posit counterfactuals, Sam. It’s a lot harder to back them up with solid evidence. Who knows what postwar Asia and Europe would have looked like without the Pax Americana.”

Me: “Fair point.”

Clay: “Tangential point more like. My story actually begins a couple dozen leagues before I joined up with Staunton’s Militia.”

Brigit: “Isn’t ‘league’ a measure of distance?”

Clay: “You remember what it was like then. It was easier to count footsteps than to keep track of the days. Anyway, I still recall Murfreesboro. Nashville itself lay in ruins, but Murfreesboro still stood. Sort of. The embers of DC had barely cooled, and the surrounding state governments were gutted, so most places reverted to a primitive sort of manorialism.”

Brigit: “Manorialism?”

Clay: “It’s the economic counterpart to Feudalism. Most people get the two mixed up. It’s understandable because they’re historically intertwined, but feudalism was more about the political and military relationships between local lords and manorialism dealt with the relationship between tenants and owners.”

Me: “Huh. I never knew that.”

Clay: “It was stable enough because it had the weight of history behind it. Families had heritable, transferable reputation capital. You ever wonder why it is family names mattered so much in small town politics? Scumbaggery is genetic. Or at least genetic enough to get the  job done. But that didn’t fit well with New World values. In the America that was, we were encouraged to shed the baggage of our homelands, of our ancestral reputations when we stepped off the boat. So complete was the assimilating force of Lady Liberty that within a few scant generations, there were no longer separate classes for Irish, or Polish, or Italian or whatever. The Census fiddled with race categories almost every time around. That is not evidence of stable national or racial identity. But in the Old World? You could go there and ask anyone, and I mean anyone what their national identity was and they wouldn’t hesitate for a second. Most of them even knew exactly which tribe they belonged to.”

Me: “I can confirm that, at least for the Baltics. Lithuania and Latvia… I’m not sure about Estonia, but the two Baltic Republics.”

Brigit: “Estonia isn’t Baltic?”

Me: “Not ethnically. They’re Ugro-Finn like Finland and Hungary. You know, Magyar. Anyway, they’ve really got it down. Folks know their nationality, their tribe, and usually their clan too. They don’t need totems of nationality because their identity has never been in question. ‘What does it mean to be Lithuanian?’ is not something to keep a Lithuanian up at night. ‘What does it mean to be an American?’ has fueled millions of pages of elementary school essays.”

Clay: “So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to you that efforts to reproduce hereditary land ownership and management regimes were something like a cargo cult after the… the thing.” Somehow, a name for it was sort of scratching around the corners of our minds, but we kept fleeing from naming it, knowing without being able to articulate why that naming it would give it too much power. “You can read about how a manor or a fiefdom is supposed to work, you can organize goons to keep the peace, you can assign parcels of land, but you can’t get anyone to trust you out of the blue. You really need to have some reason to trust a local lord to keep his word. Maybe a military campaign might do the trick, but you all remember how fast the whole highway banditry thing fizzled out. Can you imagine anyone working up the enthusiasm needed to muster an army these days?”

Me: “Nope.”

Brigit: “No way.”

Anika: “I can’t.”

Clay: “In Murfreesboro, they went the other way. No one owned anything. Or rather everyone owned everything. I’m not really sure. They took all the locks out of all the doors. Anyone was free to come and go at any time for any reason.”

Me: “You’re kidding. No one’s that crazy.”

Clay: “They said it was something about building community trust. If you can’t trust your neighbors, who can you trust?”

Me: “Isn’t that the point to locking your door? You actually can’t trust your neighbors?”

Clay: “Again, that’s with existing history, existing institutions. Faith died then, both the good and the bad. Do you guys know anything about Bayesian reasoning?”

Brigit: “Yes.”

Me: “A little.”

Anika: “No. No. I don’t want to.” The last was muttered so low that my ears might have been playing tricks on me.

Clay: “In Bayesian terms, everyone’s priors got reset. The past and the present got a system wipe. When you stop believing in everything, you can believe in anything. Something like that. These people decided to believe in a hive community. No ‘mine’ no ‘yours’ only ‘ours’ and it was as true for physical possessions as for sexual access as for knowledge.”

Brigit: “Knowledge? What does that even mean?”

Clay: “Well, the easy part of it was the public confessionals. Every three days, everyone in town, about 200 people or so would convene to basically air the previous few days’ gossip. You’d expect it to get pretty boring after a little while, because if you knew that everything you said would be a matter of the public record, everyone would be walking on eggshells. That wasn’t the case. They tossed out shame along with everything else, so the confessionals were high drama. And since they had no punishment system to speak of apart from shunning and public gossip, people still acted like their normal, terrible selves. The only difference was that everything was common knowledge.”

We were close enough to our anchorage that I lowered the jib and reefed the main to prepare to set the anchor. I still chuckled to myself when I remembered the first time I watched my now-tolerable crew toss the anchor overboard and hitch it to a cleat at fathom depth. It seemed odd to have to explain to grown adults how an anchor works and how you have to have plenty of chain resting on the ocean floor for the thing to work. Still, it’s a short enough lesson and they got it pretty quickly. When the anchor was out, I finished stowing the main.

Hoisting Anika into the dingy was more of a challenge. I hadn’t noticed, but she was fixated. She was looking into the water, murmuring, clutching a stanchion with a deathgrip. I had to get help to pry her hand open.

Me: “We need an extra day on shore. Here, get her feet.” She wasn’t struggling, but she was rigid, so it was like wrestling non-compliant driftwood aboard. Not difficult, just unwieldy. “We’ll look for someone’s old beachfront house or something. This stretch can’t be deserted.” Nor was it, not entirely. We were just off Cape Blanco point, and there was a dead lighthouse up the hill. The leeward side of the point, where we’d dropped anchor wasn’t littered with hull-splintering rocks like the windward side, but it wasn’t exactly what you’d call free of debris.

She didn’t exactly snap right out of it as soon as we hit landfall, nor did she seem to want to talk about it very much. Once we had a fire going and some clams boiling, she warmed up enough to get a quick run-down on the story so far. Clay was happy enough to oblige, and I was busy seeing what else low tide had to offer. The beach was wide and long. Good for clamming. There were even a couple of oyster beds on the rocky side of the cape. Breakfast would be good. For now though, as the sun flirted with the horizon, Clay continued his story.

Clay: “The bad part was the deep knowledge. Share and share alike meant that everyone that had specialized professional knowledge about things like medicine, law, academics, even trades like plumbing or woodworking had to teach everyone everything they knew. And everyone in turn had to learn everything everyone was teaching.”

Brigit: “Okay, now I know you’re making this up. That’s definitely impossible.”

Clay: “It is impossible, but they had something of a system. They knew that no one could learn 200 skills at once, so they set up a sort of rotating schedule, giving everyone time to write up a syllabus or prepare classes or whatever. The trade guys had it the worst. You can’t just pick up a hammer and start banging away. That sort of stuff really needs a lot of actual practice. What they did was tore down old houses and practiced putting them back together, wiring and all. Damndest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Brigit: “And in between tearing down and rebuilding old houses they had time to study for the Bar exam?”

Clay: “Well…”

Brigit: “And to run farms? You’re saying that they had to be full-time students with a 200 class courseload and full-time swineherds too?”

Clay: “That’s the point. It didn’t work. It couldn’t work. It never stood the faintest chance of working.”

Brigit: “I don’t get it. What’s interesting about this story? Why did you tell it?”

Clay: “Well, part of the point is this: they tried to educate themselves into some sort of addle-brained utopia. It didn’t work. Fairness and open access seem like fine ideals, but no one even planted anything. Not much anyway. And it wasn’t just because everyone was busy studying. The Plymouth colony, you know, the ones in the Thanksgiving story with Governor Bradford? They tried the same thing and they starved the first year. That’s literally the canonical Thanksgiving story, in Bradford’s own journal written in his own hand. It was only when they switched back to private ownership that anyone had any incentive to plant anything.”

Anika: “We didn’t do that on my farm.”

Clay: “How did you do it?”

Anika: “Farm boss told us what to plant and we did it.”

Clay: “Sure, a dictatorship is one way to get things done. But dictatorships are unpopular.”

Brigit: “Unpopular? Dictatorships are the most common form of government throughout history. The standard farmer-era family structure is a petit dictatorship.”

Clay: “Maybe. But if they are dictatorships, most families are benevolent dictatorships. It’s awfully hard to love a community of a couple hundred the same way you can love your family of five.”

Brigit: “All I’m saying is that you don’t actually need strict private ownership to get the job done.”

Clay: “Yeah, but they didn’t have anything at all. Other than their good intentions.”

Brigit: “You can afford to live on good intentions in a prosperous nation of 300 million people who have rich enough culture and institutions to bear their fantasies.”

I was up early enough the next morning to again gaze into the pitiless light of the dog star and feel its cold regret.

Previous Episodes in this Series

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