Letters from Berkeley: Sex, drugs, alcohol and Chicken Little


In the story of Chicken Little, an acorn falls on the unfortunate fowl’s head.

“The sky is falling,” he cries, and, joined by Henny Penny and Goosey Loosey, he goes to tell the king of impending global disaster. But Foxy Loxy tricks them into his den and eats them.

The statement “don’t be a Chicken Little” offers a moral about not giving in to fear. At first glance, I have thought that this has been the attitude of most Americans since September 11, a wary business-as-usual that has seemed the only sane alternative to the kind of paranoia that triggers ritual suicides in burning bathtubs of gasoline, as happened in Cambodia early last month.

However, as people go on with their lives, it isn’t as if nothing has happened and business can really go on as usual. After all, three birds are now dead, and will they ever really know for sure that the sky isn’t going to fall? And when the king, who inherited his throne by blood and not by merit and is of questionable intelligence, gets all worked up about Foxy and his other tricky friends and wants to examine his den for tricky weapons, no one in the animal kingdom can feel quite as relaxed as before.

So at least in my observation, fear and survival continue to hang over us — this vision of impending global disaster goes on and on, and business as usual is tinged by a desperate undertone of Chicken Little-esque fear. The way I see this fear manifesting itself is in the drag of the economy and the tightness of the job market. One of my public interest interviewers told me how pleased he was that his schedule was actually full this year, as firms continue to lay off or freeze hiring (perhaps a phenomenon more obvious at schools other than Harvard). This weird survival vibration has taken hold of most people I know. With these underlying tones of apocalypse, it seems to me that what’s really important in life should be clearer — but the opposite has been the case.

I get caught up in worries too. School, career plans, everything is so stressful — and I’ve been suffering from major insomnia. Especially as every morning my cat opens my door, hops onto my bed, meows a few times, and punches me in the nose with a large white paw.

“Stop it!” I yell, rolling to turn my back to him. That usually ends it. But the repetition of this daily ritual has planted some seeds… and I have begun to wonder: What is he trying to tell me? With that, his simple demand for attention, or with his requests to be fed or let outside, or with the pleasure he gets from humping the huge stuffed gorilla that sits in my garage? What is the universe trying to tell me by sending me this furry white being to place his paw forcefully on my face?

Another strange event: I hosted a party this past weekend full of good food, free-flowing alcohol, a dance floor that was packed till 4 a.m., and an orgy in the backyard, somewhere in front of the storage sheds and behind the apple trees — the trees of original sin. A good time was had by all. What did this signify in the jigsaw puzzle of my existence?

Another thought that’s occurred to me: It’s interesting that answers to the question, “What would you do if this was your last day to live?” often involve copious amounts of sex, food and/or drugs. It’s a little bit different from carpe diem, which doesn’t have that element of desperation in its seizing of the day. When it’s the last, it seems to involve a gluttony of the senses that attempts to pack in enough stimulation to last through several swims through the River Lethe. “Business as usual” with fear undertones just becomes an excuse to deny the fear, something to hide in, and people just worry more about what they normally worry about — indulging in a gluttony of mind-numbing activity, as if it’s their last day to live.

So, what does it all mean? Well, probably, it means nothing, and the universe isn’t trying to tell me much either. But in my head, it all wants to come back to food and diddling the skittle, but in a carpe diem, not a “last day to live” vibration. It seems significant also that so many things taste like chicken. That’s what happens sometimes when the taste buds are surfeited. This column’s moral: golden means, equilibrium points, balancing acts — no need to go off the deep end in re-prioritizing when disastrous events occur, but also no need to stop making the game enjoyable.

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