Too Much (Is Never Enough)

Elliott Smith's XO is the first album I've cherished as a recovering rock critic. Watching myself hear it, fall for it, I am struck, time and again, by the freedoms lay listening allows. I am not attempting to label and sort these songs, to force them into an interpretation. It's not that I don't care what they say--only that I let them open up as they will. So I've come to love scraps of words: "I've got a question mark," "singing 'Cathy's Clown'," "I'm not fucked, not quite." The phrases resonate because the music twists them into my ears; I love how they sound. SEENGin' CAtheeez clOWn.

My nastiest rock-critic secret: I could hardly bear to play an album after I reviewed it. Even if I flat-out creamed over it. Simply put, I'd consumed it. Just as anyone might with a favorite album or song. But I licked up every crumb within a couple of days, at most a week. Critics, in general, are champion hot-dog eaters. They don't linger; they don't let mysteries unfold. They chew, swallow, and burp. In their defense, they can't really avoid it. There are 28,000 albums rolling off the grill yearly, and if a critic wants to make a claim for general knowledge, she'd better taste at least 1,000. Whereas, over the last month, I have listened to two new CDs. And I've stopped reading reviews. Paging past the Billboard charts and concert grosses that now count as the savvy consumer's "news," it seems I've not so much left a job as stepped off a planet.

Last week I slogged through Kate Elliott's Prince of Dogs (Daw Books), the second book in her smart if snail-paced medieval fantasy trilogy. At one point, a king's messenger travels by horseback across the country, staying with villagers along the road. The poorer--and hence more socially isolated--the family, the warmer welcome she receives. They gladly give her food and drink in exchange for what she carries: news. A new story. I've been wondering what it might feel like to lack for fresh stories. I think it may feel a lot like having too many: in a word, dull. Except that those exposed to too much are more weary at base and impatient with the odd story--the nonnarrative film, the challenging record--that doesn't slide down as easily as the rest.

In his latest book, Maybe One (Simon & Schuster), environmentalist writer Bill McKibben talks numbers: six billion. That's how many people the earth now supports. Eleven billion. That's how many people the UN estimates it must support in 50 years. The U.S. population now: 270 million. And in 50 years, according to the Census Bureau: 400 million. McKibben goes on: 1985. That's the year world grain production per capita stopped climbing and fell off. 1989: The year the world's ocean fish catch topped out at nearly 90 million tons, then began dropping. The author's argument is simple. All mouths are not going to be fed.

McKibben's start at a solution also wears the grace of simplicity: Americans, since they consume more than their fair share of resources, could voluntarily decide to breed less children. Maybe one child a family, say. McKibben cites a slew of studies to dismember the persistent image of lonely, spoiled, and socially retarded only children. We are standing at a fulcrum in world history, he writes. Together--and only together--we could choose to create breathing space for everyone. This is such a new and strange story that I find I cannot even mention it to friends who are contemplating or having kids. I know it will be hard to swallow.

McKibben's book concentrates on the fragile earth's carrying capacity. I worry about that, certainly, but also about the fragile psyche's carrying capacity. The more people we see each day, the less welcoming we feel. Questions of ownership and possessiveness arise: We have less give. Nor do we want what strangers may have to give us: Their presence irritates rather than intrigues. Dealing with too many people inures us to others' needs, others' stories. We believe we've eaten this particular hot-dog brand before, thank you.

Parents still birthing large families are certain their well-raised kids will help solve the world's problems, including overpopulation. Yet the more children born, the less likely it is that any one individual can lead, let alone convince, a significant group of people to change. Few people make space in their head to treasure a novel story. Our psyches are like castles under siege: crowded without and within. Meanwhile, at the bright campfire of the cinema, crowds gorge themselves on the old verities--tales of exceptional heroes who courageously save the day, the earth, Private Ryan. And they weep, and clutch their bellies, because the stories slip through them like Olestra.

 
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