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Why Do People Have to Be So Mean?
It’s a child’s question, and like many such questions it is grounded both in innocence and in wisdom. Why do people have to be so mean? Why do we hurt one another? What possible justification can there be for such behavior?

To be fair, I suppose it could be evolution’s way of controlling the population. War is just meanness on a large scale, after all, and war has a reputation for getting a lot of people killed. Is it possible that such an attitude might be useful in thinning the human herd in a time of scarce resources?

Apparently not. We are killing each other in record numbers (at least in absolute terms), but the population has ballooned to over seven billion — way too many, in my view. The next time someone asks you, “War! What is it good for?”, you can truthfully reply, “I’m not sure, but definitely not for population control.”

All right then, anything else? Could it be a way of naturally selecting the strong and assertive over the weak, thereby strengthening our breeding stock? I don’t think this theory pencils out in the long run. If we really lived in a survival-of-the-meanest world, then wolverines would be running the show.

Unless I’m missing something, then, meanness is a bad thing. Unlike niceness, it is not a boon to human society. It’s not a deterrent to crime, it doesn’t stimulate the economy, and it practically guarantees waste, fraud, and abuse. Plus, it makes everybody feel bad — unless you happen to be a meanie.

This is not exactly news. There have been laws against doing mean things ever since there have been laws. Those laws prescribe punishments, and that threat of punishment has worked to a certain extent. These kinds of laws, however, do not address the root cause of crime: meanness itself.

Religion goes all-out against meanness (unless you count the terrorism, the child molestation, the war, and the virgin sacrifices). Not only does it threaten retribution for bad acts, but it also rewards niceness. Furthermore, religion has come up with the concept of sin, which comes closer to the mark in identifying the problem with meanness. Meanness is seen as a flaw in motivation by most religions, something that might be corrected with the application of a little effort. Still, the religious approach hasn’t exactly worked either. Commandments are being ignored all over the place.

So is there hope? Can anything be done to stop the meanness? Let’s go back to the main question: Why do people have to be so mean? Instead of treating the symptoms, perhaps we should get to the heart of the matter… with technology!

Here’s my hypothesis: people act mean because of bad chemicals in their brains. Those chemicals should be detectable. It’s simply a matter of developing the proper tests. Given the advances we’ve made in science and technology, that should be easy. Once we find those answers, all we’d need to do is summon the will to test everyone for the presence of these bad chemicals. We will have isolated the meanness before it has had a chance to cause mean acts. And then what, you ask? What do we do with this knowledge?

Do we punish people just because of a chemical imbalance? We can’t do that; they haven’t done anything wrong (yet). Do we force them to undergo drug treatments to correct the imbalance? To do so would be a gross violation of their individual rights. Rehabilitation? That only works if there is a real, substantial incentive to back it up.

No, there is only one way to handle this. We test people as described above, and if their blood contains the chemical markers for meanness that I am fully confident exist, then tax the bastards! The higher the readings, the higher the tax! The benefits for society would be immense. Revenues would go through the roof. A whole new industry would grow up around the rush to undergo voluntary drug treatments. Without mean people around, the need for police would disappear — as would the need for armies and navies. The entire defense budget could be eliminated. The world would be at peace, and we’d all be rich and happy!

Wouldn’t that be nice?
What is the scariest animal?

That’s a personal question, of course. Some people are afraid of snakes … something about the slithering is disquieting, although I think there’s more to it than that. To others, even the thought of a big, hairy tarantula scurrying across the kitchen floor will send shivers though their gut. This one also reflects some hidden kinkiness.

I’m not necessarily talking about rational fear (if there is such a thing). It makes sense to be afraid of a tiger, for instance, or a crocodile, or a python. Those dudes will kill you and eat you; you need to be afraid of them. What I’m wondering about are the deeper terrors of the soul.

I’ve heard that the creators of the movie Alien wanted the look of the monster to touch the audience in some primal place, some psychic zone filled with ancestral dread. The teeth, the head, the tail, the knack for exploding out of peoples’ chests — all were crafted to scare you down to the toenails.

But there is something much, much worse. If the Alien is our nightmare creature, then these are her nightmares. Except they are real, and they are everywhere. In the carpet, on the furniture, and all over you!

Mites, they call some of them — such a cute name for such horrific creatures. There are also water bears and pseudo scorpions. Please, don’t Google these. If you do, their great, jagged mandibles, and their hideous visages will surely haunt your dreams. Yes, they are crawling on you right now. Their multiple appendages are insinuating into your skin; their claws are tearing at you, dislodging hunks of living flesh and passing them to the all-consuming maw — relentlessly feeding, feeding, feeding.

Now, I don’t want to alarm you, but you are being devoured in this way constantly. It’s all being done on a tiny scale, but it is no less violent than a tiger attack. At least the tiger is a handsome, noble beast. These creatures wear the face of Satan himself.

And yet, there is no sense in fearing them. After all, there’s not much you can do to defend yourself. Perhaps it's best to imagine them as microscopic bunnies or plump little cupids or tiny cartoon elves frolicking in the misty glens and sheltered dells of your personal landscape. That wouldn't be so bad.

Whatever you do, though, do not think of them as monsters from the depths of your personal hell roaming your body at will and eating you alive. In fact, I’m sorry I brought it up.
Sometimes I fantasize about a world in which words have one meaning and one meaning only. It’s a silly dream, I know. Perhaps there was a time when our ancestors led lives so simple that every object, every act, every situation had one word all to itself to signify it. Theirs would have been a clear, straightforward language that did not require us to sort out definition from context or to guess at what was being communicated.

There would have been no words like ball, for instance. It’s such a simple word, right? It’s round, and it rolls. Probably bounces, too. On second thought, though, maybe it’s a big dress-up party. Or a good ol’ time, or a bullet, or not a strike, or a sex act, or a testicle, or guts, or any conglomeration of stuff of uncertain shape and consistency.

There are many words like ball in the English language — words that have multiple, seemingly unrelated meanings. There does not seem to be any way to stem this tide of metastasizing definitions. I don’t like it, but I have given into it as a byproduct of our complex society. I accept that a kind of entropy is at work within our language, and that we are moving toward a time when all words will mean all things and therefore nothing at all.

Different meanings are one thing. I draw the line, however, at contranyms — words that can mean the opposite of themselves.

Fortunately for my mental health, most of the examples often cited as contranyms are not true opposites, but rather very different applications of the same root meaning. Take bound, for instance. One usage might have you tied up and immobile. Another could have you moving toward a very certain destination. It gives me comfort to know that you could be both: lashed to your seat on the night flight to Rangoon. Bound is not, in my view, a true contranym.

Cleave is another such word. One meaning is to hold tight, the other is to cut or chop. These are seemingly at odds, but if I let my imagination take me back to the word’s origins in Middle English, I can picture Beowulf bringing down his axe to hack a notch in Grendel’s noggin — and having it stick there. Here again, the two meanings might hypothetically coexist and therefore do not illustrate a contranym. An antagonym, perhaps, but I can live with that.

Most so-called contranyms, in fact, fall into the antagonym category. It is distressing to have to spend time doing thought experiments about such words as dust (remove it vs. apply it), left (gone vs. still here), sanction (approval vs. punishment), and oversight (watching vs. falling asleep on the job), but it is important work that needs to be done.

(This is not the time or place to contrast flammable and inflammable nor to discuss which valuable things are also invaluable. I invite you to conduct those thought experiments on your own.)

There is one word on the list, however, that seems impervious to rationalization: ravel. It means, so far as I can tell, both to tangle and to untangle. Right there in the dictionary, one of the listed meanings of ravel is … unravel. I have not been able to find a way around this paradox, and it is deeply distressing to me. There should be no contranyms at all; for such a word to exist defies the fundamentals of clear communication. As nature abhors a vacuum, so too should language abhor a contranym. It is wrong, pure and simple.

So I must persist. The answer to the conundrum, I know, will present itself to me; all I need is to be patient. At times like this, I often think of the ancient Polynesians. I know that I will never live in a world like theirs where meanings are unitary and immutable. And they, in turn, never faced such riddles as these. But as they navigated the Pacific using the art of wayfinding they called a’aa’u’aa’o’o’i, they had to pit their resolve and cunning against a sea of uncertainty just as I do now. Like theirs, mine will be a lonely journey.

The U. S. of Us
For starters, your face would be New York City.

Media, the arts, business, the really Big Time — are all centered in the Big Apple. And if your body were the United States of America, your kisser would have to be the home of Broadway, MOMA, Wall Street, and the hub of the communications industry. Wouldn’t it? I suppose your face could be L.A., but that would only be true if all you did was watch TV all day.

Your arms and shoulders are the industrial Midwest. Can’t bench press what they used to, but throw in some discreet padding, and no one will know the difference.

The rest of the body is pretty much flyover country. Some of it, I’m sure you’ll agree, is nighttime flyover country. That’s why we have clothes. I don’t mean to suggest, however, that these nether regions are without merit or even beauty. The navel, for example, is a unique and wondrous place — comparable to the Grand Canyon. Or, in some cases, to Half Dome. Either way, your belly button ranks as one of our elite national parks. The nipples are perhaps our most popular National Monuments, and there are numerous recreational opportunities nearby.

After that, the metaphor breaks down a little bit. The mighty Mississippi seems like a natural in the role of the alimentary canal — with New Orleans at the end as party central. It’s hard, though, not to give Nevada the nod as our crotch. Its long history of catering to base instincts and its proximity to weapon testing sites make it an obvious choice.

I’m tempted to cast the armpits as the Everglades, but that would mean two Everglades, which seems wrong. Maybe bayou country could stand in as the left pit, the ‘glades as the right. We all know that no two pits are exactly alike.

That little spot on your arm that crusts over and itches might be Oklahoma. Not our most beautiful attribute, but certainly fun to pick at. The West Coast could be our hair — long and lovely and utterly without substance. Alaska is a hat that flew off in an icy wind. Hawaii’s a well-spat loogie.

All right, the metaphor is in a complete shambles at this point. Just one more before I go, then. To all my fine Texan friends let me say with love: The Lone Star State is our big, fat arse.
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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee