Squirrel Factor

  When living in Palo alto a few years ago I could look out my home-office window and see a squirrel scurrying along a 2 x 6  fence rail. From time to time I would put a peanut or two on this rail and watch the squirrel stop, sniff the peanut, grasp it, quickly gnaw into it and either sit there and eat it or quickly carry it away. One day I put a small pile of peanuts on the rail - a treasure! The squirrel ran up to the pile, took one look and without taking a single nut, turned and ran away. I tried this a few more times. Whenever there was more than a few nuts,  the squirrel would run off without taking a single one. What was it about the unexpected and un-natural  bounty that frightened the little guy? Did too much of a good thing signal doom? Was this squirrel hard-wired to distrust excessive good fortune? Was it the weirdness of too many nuts in one place? A squirrel is a mammal. Humans are mammals we share 95% of our genes with squirrels and we share this revulsion toward unnatural, unexpected goodies.

On the night April 22, 2014  62 year old British aristocrat and passionate animal rights advocate Mark Shand fell to the sidewalk in New York city and died after a night of celebrating a hard-fought victory in his battle for Elephant protection in India. A dear friend Barbara Kwiatkowska said “It was a night of triumph and Mark was so happy. this was his big night, you could see how happy he was.” Mark’s foundation “Elephant Family USA” had just raised $1.7 million at a charity auction at Sotheby's. Mark had been drinking scotch from dinner until he walked out of his third establishment of the night (“It was scotch all the way”) for a cigarette at 2:00 AM. Mark walked into a revolving door after finishing his smoke and fell back to the sidewalk, hitting the back of his head this time, cracking his skull and bruising his brain - he went into a coma and died the following day, to the shock and sadness of his family and friends. He was in the prime of his life, a “lion” to his closest friends.

What happened to Mark? Why do people drink to excess when celebrating big victories? why do auto racers celebrate a big win by ritual spraying of champagne onto all around the podium? Why is the victor presented with a magnum of champagne in the first place?  There is a tight link between victory and alcohol in our culture. Why?

Answer:  Squirrel Factor

Mammals are hardwired to distrust excess in good things. Alcohol depresses feelings of bliss associated with triumph. Your close friends will ensure that you drink a lot after a big victory. They will accompany you all over town as you drink yourself stupid, bringing you back into the orbit of the normal. Your friends don’t want to lose you to the bliss angels.

Jimi Hendrix was the towering master of rock and roll in 1969,  admired by his colleagues and worshipped by millions of amazed fans. He drank to excess one night and choked to death on his vomit. Mama Cass, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison-ditto. Kurt cobain blew his brains out at the height of his global success. !00% of touring rock stars of the past fifty years are drug and alcohol abusers - why? John Lennon- heroin junkie, James Taylor-heroin junkie, the Allman Brothers and their entire road crew - heroin junkies. One might think that musicians who have arrived at “The Mountaintop” (global success: worldwide sold-out concerts, international #1 hit records,TV appearances) would be high on a sort of natural happiness from having finally achieved a hard-won goal but they appear to be lower than people not dealing with fame. The mountain top breeds addiction like a Guatemalan swamp breeds mosquitoes. Look at a photo of the Beatles in 1970 after seven years of unprecedented acclaim,influence, towering personal wealth, love, adoration and respect from all corners of the cultural landscape. Faces as unhappy as those photographed overlooking a mass burial pit at Auschwitz.

Squirrel Factor - mammals (reptiles, amphibians, birds?) have little capacity to endure bounty in any form: love, money or fame. It just ain’t natural. It makes people nervous. It makes one vulnerable - to what? jealousy? envy? mooching relatives? The inevitable bliss-crash? The successful  have become tall poppies. If society doesn’t find a way to bring us down, most of us will find a way to bring ourselves down. This is quite sad.  Strength of character is measured, not by one’s capacity to endure hardship - almost all of can handle hard times, character is measured by one’s ability to endure bliss, to remain in the flow,  to savor victory in a graceful, non-destructive way. To live day after day in an elevated state i.e. to be happy.  Savoring victory with intelligence rather than in an alcohol stew is very hard for most.

We treasure our stories as they are  workable, exchangeable, elastic excuses for marginal ascent into one’s zone of excellence and happiness. Our stories are our reason why not. Is it Western culture alone that forces one to apologize for success? No, Russians drink like fish to avoid bliss.  Is bliss-killing an American, British, or uniquely Protestant, Christian or Muslim thing? Yes x 5. Whatever the biological or cultural origin and scope,  It is an unfortunate tendency that must be battled daily. try to endure an extra minute of pure happiness each day. Strengthen your bliss. Don’t follow your bliss. following implies that you are its dog. You and your bliss are one.

Beverage alcohol is a $200 billion industry in the United States. That is 9.4 billion gallons of bliss-killing slosh n’ grog across the land. We call ourselves the home of the brave - Ha!  The home of cowardly beer-swilling  bliss-chickens. Squirrel factor is an instinct. It is hardwired into the animal brain. One must battle it daily.


JB Questions and Observations: Books: “Empire of Cotton”-Sven Beckert, The Georgetown Set” Gregg Herken - residual thought at item #1 from “Elementary Forms of Religious Life” - Emile Durkheim

  1. Picasso appropriated indigenous, timeless African and Polynesian totemic motifs, sacred religious objects, images, talismanic relics for his urban, boho-bourgeoisie, art-as-commodity milieu. He took art with deep tribal significance and repositioned it, appropriating all things bold and strong from this native art while conflating it with the rebellious pictorial tropes of late Cezanne ( more mythically dynamic art) in order to begin the path toward Cubism in 1906 creating his Tropes de Tropique ( JB neolog) that evolved into “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon” in 1907 followed by  full-blown analytical cubism in 1910 “Portrait of Fanny Tellier” and the synthetic Cubism ( collage) of 1912 that has inspired architects for 100 years.
  2. JB Theory: Low oxygen levels above 10,000 feet altitude in a small plane cause neurons to burn fat giving a sugar high euphoria and impaired judgement. Pilot to himself “Running on fumes - no problemity I can make it 200 more miles to Boise”
  3. JBQ - does oxygen-sensing in the vertebrate brain have a link to bacterial activity?
  4. At “Empire of Cotton” JBT - Along with the exit of USA manufacturing to Asia, Indonesia and Mexico, there is little incentive to maintain infrastructure in USA for citizens alone. Infrastructure is for capitalist enterprise and the defense sector that enables it - the people just tag along on fine highways, port facilities, utilities. this explains the rot of USA infrastructure as capitalists and their congressional handmaidens put money in international banks to be spent on foreign infrastructure development in third world where their businesses are located.
  5. At “The Georgetown Set” - Herken JBT - Pundits, policy wonks, politicians of the 1950s were all alcoholics thus always depressed, no wonder the Cold War took root. See: Alsop Brothers, CIA directors. All of Washington DC was pickled - maybe it still is.
  6. We need a minimal letter symbol such as the “etc” or “et al” that means “and later” example: Brits invested in agriculture in USA during antebellum and ( plug in new abbreviation here meaning and after.) Perhaps “altr” short for and later.
  7. JBT - whatever causation is at work when one makes a decision during artmaking is the same as the urge-compulsion at work in a metabolic process at the cellular level.
  8. Throughout the 19th century the northern states and the Brits were deeply involved in the entire business of cotton growing, ginning, shipping and remained involved after the Civil War as owners, agents, bankers for coal mines, quarries, railroads so - for slavery as well as for slavery by another name. Coercion of African Americans from nation’s colonial beginnings to the middle of the 20th century. Emancipation of slaves generated a second round of moneylending to small cotton farmers i.e. loans were refreshed. The Brits may have outlawed the slave-trade in 1807 but the steam-driven  industrial revolution in Britain was built on the backs of American slaves.
  9. Sociocultural rhizome ( see: Gilles Deleuze) at work in Washington DC during the Cold War: 1. Joe Alsop writes a column on the missile gap between Soviets and USA 2. JFK reads this newspaper column into The Congressional Record on the Senate floor. 3. Alsop mentions JFK in two of his following newspaper columns as an American leader with foreign policy acumen. 4. JFK rises in nation’s consciousness becoming part of the zeit.


February 29, 2016    5:18PM