THE FLYING BIRD BRINGS THE MESSAGE
CHAPTER 8
MAINLINING SESAME STREET
(ADDICTION)
 
APRIL ARITHMETIC
 
I used to think
That "coming" was for other people ...
Other women,
All men ...
I used to think
That writing poetry
Was for Emily Dickinson,
Amy Lowell,
Shakespeare,
And my little brother ...
And then I thought
That "coming" was
A gift from above ..
That a man could give it to me ...
Or refuse to ...
For all my prayers and supplications.
And, too, I thought
That writing poetry
Was a gift from above ...
A line would come,
And then the rest,
Quite unbidden,
Though so often prayed-for in vain.
And now ...
And now,
I am nearly content
Not to understand fully.
Do I grow old?
Do you change as you grow older?
Is it better
Or worse
To see life fitting more fully
One's actual wishes?
To accept the equation -
Flat-footed, quid pro quo -
You get what you pay for?
But what balances the equation
Is love.
April, 1976.
 
The more I think about the insanity of our society, the crazier I get! Fortunately for my sanity, I've found a few people who are thinking the same kinds of thoughts I am. Urie Bronfenbrenner, an eminently sane man, professor of education at Cornell, has studied schools in Russia and Red China, and seems to be moving in the direction of developing a critique of the impact of our culture on the young - coming from somewhat the same angle I am - only mine includes my awareness of my own nuttiness more than his appears to! Or else he just plays the cards closer to his chest than I do in an effort to speak the lingo of his peers - a good man-thing to do!
 
Urie had an article in the Scientific American (August, 1974) about alienation of the young. It's a very good summary of the entire range of the factors creating this phenomenon. The one that struck my gong was human isolation starting from birth and continuing into adulthood. Look what we do! What percent of babies get breast-fed? That's just for starters. What percent even get held by their mothers during the nursing process? We have a hell of a lot of data on the crucial importance of touch on the entire life span of creatures. Take Harlow's work on monkeys, with the wire and cloth mother surrogates. As adults, they couldn't mate! Or didn't. Babies need to learn response, activity, through activization by body contact - learn to reach out, move, grasp, take in and reject, push away and pull in, stretch, struggle toward, push up from, pull up against, balance, unbalance, all of those complex, interrelated activities which teach coordination of the receptive and the aggressive, of the senses, seeing, touching, tasting, hearing, feeling, smelling, with the motor components which involve active involvement with process, taking in or rejecting and the rest. Existential choice-making, you might say, on its most fundamental level and most total involvement of the entire being.
 
What do we do? Our mothers come to the reproductive function so split, turned-off, fearful, out of contact with their own bodies, conflicted in their motivation for having babies in the first place, so unsure of who they are and what they really want, that making a baby becomes a copout for establishing their identity on more ego-centered grounds in a society which teaches them to despise their exclusively female functions! A study done at an abortion clinic at New York University Medical School was so overwhelmingly skewed in its results that the researchers ended up with the unscientific-sounding conclusion that there is no such thing as an accidental pregnancy! In a very large number of cases, these women, all of whom, please remember, came to the clinic to terminate an unwanted pregnancy!, had suffered some real and painful loss during the period immediately preceding the pregnancy. Which fits the fact that it is in countries where the conditions of living are the most miserable that the birth rate is the highest!
 
OK. So we're one down from the start. But what then? These mothers who wanted their babies enough not to abort them - what of them? Why did they want them? A lot of them are very strongly against abortion, considering it murder. The Right to Life movement in New York brings thousands of screaming women to our city, dear old Albany, when the legislature is in session, trying to get the present abortion law repealed. Men too. Very hot issue - not simple at all, of course. I have a lot of fellow feeling with their instinctive awareness of the extent to which abortion merely complicates the whole problem of the dignity and value of human life, rather than dealing with it in the proper context as part and parcel of the whole society. But then, neither do they! Deal with it, I mean.
 
So a lot of women who get pregnant don't necessarily want their babies. They have them because they don't believe in any alternative. Then there are a lot who get pregnant to hold onto their husbands, or to avoid having to face their own inner emptiness. I know. I am one of them. I had nine pregnancies, five of them live births - the last one at the age of forty! That's gotta be chicken-heartedness! And I think I did better than some others in bringing up my kids to be full-blooded human people. Of course, I could be biased.
 
But even beyond all these complications, I think we have to look at the pattern of child-rearing which constitutes the vast majority of cases in our world of western industrialized society. It's a package deal. You can reject a few of the items in the box (e.g., TV), but if you don't have it at your house, you can be damn sure your neighbor will, and your kid will begin bugging you for it in yours. Unless you bring up your kids in an Amish community or a hippy commune or out in the big woods, there's really no escape. It's a case of Gresham's Law, just as Ivan Illich says it is, bad culture driving out good culture, here in America, and all over the world, where the worst aspects of American culture spread the farthest and the fastest. And the pace of this phenomenon is accelerating. We are inventing more and more sophisticated means of creating artificial desires in order to sell goods - and we then glorify the process of creating such artificially created appetites as "The American Way." It has become our most characteristic means of choosing our governing officials and leaders as the core of our national Geist.
 
Somehow consumerism has become our state religion. The wide-based pyramidal triangle pointing upward toward our Creator which appears on our dollar bill and in whom we place our trust has become a consumer triangle. And sitting right on the point of that consumer triangle is our little kid! Right? Catch him young, and he's yours for life! How? Through his eyes, which are said to be the windows of the soul. And indeed are, I believe. Oh, and his nose, ears, stomach, genitals - the whole kid, actually. I've watched lots of kids' programs, and even I get hooked sometimes. I remember an English TV commercial for Cadbury's chocolates we used to watch the year we lived in England that will be with me forever! And how about "Silly rabbit! Trix are for kids!" Or, "Tony the Tiger says, 'They're GRRRREAT!"' Meaning Sugar Frosted Flakes. "If it's Mattel, it's SWELL!" Meaning toys. "Mommy, I wanna go with you to the store! Please, please." "All right, but if you start begging, I won't take you next time." "OK, I won't." Scene changes to the supermarket. "Mommy, look, it's Captain Crunch!" "Jimmy, I told you no begging. You promised." "But Mommy, Captain Crunch has vitamins. It's the vitamin cereal." Cloud forms over Mommy's head. The kid is right. Image of TV commercial telling her it's a vitamin cereal. "All right, I'll get this one. But remember, now..." Don't fight it! We're all hooked whether we know it or not.
 
Do you get the drift? Our children are learning an adversary relationship with their parents. Not that that's all bad, mind you. But what we do with this lure technique for internalizing the consumer culture is to hand a kid a great big weapon for manipulating his parents through negativity in order to get what his body tells him he needs - except that that need is artificially defined and enhanced to begin with, and the kid is susceptible to becoming hooked on such a lure, such a compensatory pleasure, because of the negative body learnings he has already acquired in infancy! Or even if he hasn't!
 
Everything in the culture is splitting up the family. Alexander Lowen's The Betrayal of the Body is about the best account I know of the root experiences involved in the alienation process which makes it impossible for people to be real, to be human with one another, be they old folks with young folks, big folks with little folks, menfolks with womenfolks, black folks with white folks, or whatever. The human family, in other words. To say nothing of the nuclear family, the most intimate group, the most basic group for the formation and continuity of human life! Passivization breeds rage, rage breeds fear and denial, simple pleasure which flows directly from the alive body is replaced by stimulation, hyped-up excitement to drive away ennui and depression.
 
It is a self-stimulating process, like heroin addiction. The physiological fact of adaptation necessitates ever larger doses of stimuli to overcome the chronic sense of lack, and so the addicting inputs become yearly more shrill, more cacaphonous. Have you listened to kids' Saturday morning programs lately? Sheer insanity! And what is most insane is so many parents' indifference to the fact that their kids are being bombarded by this madness. Not only that - they sometimes actively collude with the media to drive their kids nuts - like letting them watrch Cable shows about cannibalism or sexual perversion, or porno-violence. The ones my school kids have described to me give me the horrors! People being eaten by rats, people having their arms gnawed off by ghouls, and so on and so on. And the warnings don't seem to make much difference.
 
I watched Sesame Street the other day, on our color TV. Now there, you say - there's a good program! Pete Seeger was on, singing for the kids. It was really wholesome. But I watched it very carefully, and all of a sudden my sense of grooviness vanished, like the solid ground dissolving beneath my feet. Jaysus! What are we doing to our kids! Think about it a minute.
 
The one course in graduate school at SUNY Albany I took that got to me was one in Social Psychology taught by Abe Luchins, who studied with Wertheimer, one of the Viennese Gestalt psychologists - not Fritz Perls' variety, but the original Europeans who studied learning. I've mentioned him before - he made an impact on me. Abe is a little Hasidic Jew who looks like Mel Brooks, very deaf, and mad as a hatter. But bright as a penny, and very challenging. I loved his courses. I remember his jumping up and down shouting at us, "Never take for granted what is being learned! Check very carefully, really look!" OK. So I looked.
 
The faces of the kids on the tube began to come through to me. Pete is singing about a giant who got zapped by an old man and his son and became loved and admired by the village, who had previously ostracized them for zapping things, for being different. Then the black guy who took Gordon's place sings a song about "You are you, you're unique, you gotta be you," or some such good notion. The kids are all dead pan, wearing public faces for the TV, sitting there because their parents are getting paid for them to sit there and have the cameras grind while these grown-ups grin and toss their heads in time to the music and overreact to Pete Seeger, the good kid lover with his good kid songs and stories.
 
You begin to look at the implications of the message we are giving kids with a program like Sesame Street and your mind begins to hum and overheat! I mean, the WHOLE message, not just the part of it that lies above the surface, which is fine. Groovy. Here is a program put on by adults that involves kids all embarked on a word-oriented experience. "This program is brought to you by the letter A." Right? Using the techniques kids have been taught to pay attention to via the toy and sweets commercials. Behavior mod. Groovy.
 
B.F. Skinner was a jerk. Well, sort of. What he forgot about is adaptation! For every blue eye looking through the keyhole at the chimp there is a brown one looking back - the chimp's! Skinner is really saying, "My computer is bigger than your computer, kid!" Which the kid responds to either by getting an incredibly undecodable message which may take years to decode if it ever does get decoded - which is R. D. Laing's definition of madness - or else he becomes very sophisticated and learns to psych out the psycher - which is alienation! Maybe adaptive alienation, but still, alienation. But nobody cares about that, just about the adaptation. This is a process whereby the only real sanity in the society is the sanity of the madman.
 
There is another guy who has had a big impact on me - Herbert Fill, M.D., former Commissioner of Mental Health for New York City. He had an article (taken from a book he had written, The Mental Breakdown of a Nation) called "An Epidemic of Madness: The Confessions of a Perpetrator," which appeared in Human Behavior in March, 1974. It begins:
 
"America the Beautiful" was playing again. They were all there as usual, standing with hats in hand: the governor, the mayor, the board of trustees, the dignitaries and the city officials all assembled in neat rows, this time to inaugurate the Brooklyn, New York, Children's Psychiatric Hospital. It was the sixth new children's psychiatric hospital to open this year. (italics mine, mine, mine mine!)
 
THAT SAYS IT ALL. What else need be said? Think on it, ye peoples! But back to Sesame Street. What I saw suddenly, devastatingly, very frighteningly, was the real extent of the damage. And that scares the livin' shit out of me! The key word is decode. In order to live sane in our world, or in any world, you gotta decode your experience, somehow rationalize it. And it really doesn't matter how you do that, so long as your language fits your direct perceptions, so there is a good match - what "we psychologists" call congruity.
 
The American Indians developed a culture which fitted their actual environment, both human and natural, in a way which, at least according to their own accounts, their myths about their culture, truly enhanced their lives as human beings inwardly and outwardly. Their beliefs gave them a universal reality in which to dwell which emphasized the sacredness of the earth and the worthiness of human beings to dwell upon this earth, and spelled out for them very clearly the rules for living which would bring about the most successful implementation of their beliefs - in other words, maximize congruity!
 
What have we got to match that? The American Dream, for God's sake! A split-level ranch house in the suburbs with matching washer and drier, two-car garage, color TV, and family to fit therein, including dog and cat. In such a culture, what is sacred, a dollar bill? It's pitiful. This has all happened for the reasons Dr. Andrew Weil talks about in The Natural Mind: because we have had partial awarenesses of unhappiness and pain and have tried to tinker with the parts of the mechanism we thought were responsible, while all the time what was wrong was the fact that our perceptions were the result of lack of contact with the natural center we all have which enables us to develop sane perceptions and sane judgements about the nature of reality.
 
Walter Cannon, one of the early pioneers in the understanding of western medicine of the role of the autonomic nervous system in health and sickness, named his book,The Wisdom of the Body. Andrew Weil describes very clearly the ways in which we interfere with that process of natural healing which we already possess, and which we hamper by our entire medical practice of conditioning ourselves to the antagonist model of illness. Marshall Efron had a lovely bit on TV (oh, sure, I like TV! I even watch Sesame Street, right?) about how we condition ourselves to take aspirin. "Headache, pill in the mouth, pain, pill, pain, pill." Yeah.
 
Like Paul De Kruif's book, which I read way back in high school. I think it was calledThe Microbe Hunters (or was itMen Against Death? He wrote both.). It was all about heroes like Pasteur and Semmelweis and Ehrlich, who pushed back the frontiers of man's long fight against the marauding enemy, death. You could almost see the stockade with its pointed pickets, the square gun towers on the corners and the painted red Indians riding up on their painted ponies, whooping and brandishing their tomahawks! Women and children under cover! The men will keep off the devils. The murdering devils. Hard to realize these devils are the same folk who lived here long before we Europeans came, until you read a book like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
 
Yeah. Sesame Street. Nothing wrong with Sesame Street. You prefer maybeThe Flintstones? Only sometimes. Everything is relative. Some things are a lot worse than others. The ghoul gnawing off the man's arm is a real no-no. Sesame Street is in sum good for kids. Of course! I guess what I am saying is that the whole enterprise is out of whack, and in some degree is crazy-making, because it is schitzy. Our schools are schitzy. We preach one thing - self-development in one form or another - while actively suppressing self-development whenever it emerges, because it IS self-development and not what the teacher labels as self-development. The poignancy of Sesame Street is that it turns the basics of human worth into a product, which is a way of subverting the most basic impulses of human life by taking them away as self-initiated and including them in a "system" sold to kids by hired adults whose job it is to do this! We teach kids to suspect the smiling adult who is selling him freedom and autonomy just by doing such a crummy thing! What kind of a person is this who would try to package integrity and sell it to kids? (Almost) better filthy books. Tom Lehrer is a songwriter whose understanding of this sort of madness has tremendous impact. "The Old Dope Peddler" is a good one:
 
He gives the kids free samples
Because he knows full well,
That today's young innocent faces
Will be tomorrow's clientèle!
 
We're doing it - every day! And nobody notices! And we thought the Germans were crazy because they didn't notice the smoke coming out of the chimneys at Belsen and Auschwitz! Sorry - I get carried away.
 
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