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Watch Words (July, 2011)
Live Like Me!

The Place I Call Home

 I live in Camp Meeker, a village in a redwood forest. The roads are all one-lane; there is no street parking. There are no stores in Camp Meeker--just a small volunteer fire department and a post office in a tiny trailer.

I can walk a mile and a half to the next town, Occidental. "Downtown" Occidental is two short blocks, with 2 grocery stores (a bohemian/health food store and a liquor store/general market), various shops and a few restaurants. Entertainment in Occidental is rare, unless you count Saturday night karaoke in the bar at Negri's Italian restaurant.

Every so often, a quirky little establishment called West County Herb Company hosts alternative entertainment. A couple of Saturday nights ago I walked there to hear a didgeridoo player followed by a raga duo, with one guy on flute, the other on tablas, and a recorded harmonium looping from a little box-shaped electronic device.

To really hit the wild side of life--movies, bookstores, real music clubs, Asian food, gas stations, and so on--I have to drive about 20 minutes to the town of Sebastopol. I go there a few days a week, to work out at the gym, buy grocery items that I can't get in Occidental, and sometimes see friends in town. Because I understand that our global oil supply is dwindling and our climate rapidly destabilizing, I experience a small pinch of guilt every time I make the trip. Which is why, on a Saturday night, I'm more likely to walk over to West County Herb Company for raga and didgeridoo than attend a party in town.

Little Sacrifices
I've been thinking lately about sacrifice and how impoverished the word has become.

I watched Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone religiously as a kid. In one episode, a villain dies, and finds himself in a place where he can have absolutely everything he wants--every luxury, every convenience, every pleasure. All he has to do is ask and it's instantly his. There is no tension, no uncertainty, only immediate gratification. The punchline of course--you can see it coming early in the show, as the guy slowly starts to go nuts--is that though he thinks this is heaven, it's really Hell.

Perhaps the real-life analogs to the guy in this Twilight Zone episode are big-time movie or rock stars, who get whatever they want (in a sense) but frequently have trouble maintaining authentic relationships, and often wind up going a little nuts.

But I also think this is more or less the situation for many of us in the developed world (even despite our financial anxiety, disappointing relationships, illnesses, and fear of death). Never has so much material gratification been available at such little (apparent) cost or effort. From customized home entertainment centers with 700 channels to portable ipods and smart phones, we increasingly live in tailor-made worlds of our favorite stimulations.

The notion of sacrifice is unsexy, unfashionable and--seemingly--unnecessary. And its meaning has become warped.

I was visiting a friend in Portland, Oregon last month, and we went to a cafe that serves the most shockingly fabulous milkshakes I have ever known. We both got the espresso mocha shake, with an agreement that, two days later, we'd stop in again and get different shakes. I was looking forward to trying the peanut butter chocolate fudge mocha shake, the very name of which causes my mouth to water even as I type.

At my friend's home, however, his wife was angry because (known to me, though I hadn't been thinking of it at the time), my friend's cholesterol is too high. She was mad that we'd gotten milkshakes and furious that we were planning to get more.

Special occasion, my friend protested.

Magnanimously, I said, "Let's skip the milkshakes."

This, to me, was a sacrifice.

I also made another sacrifice during my Portland visit. I was staying with a different friend, who has a small house, with a big tub but no shower (actually, no shower curtain). The bathroom shares a very thin wall with her bedroom. One evening, right before my friend was about to turn off her light and sleep, I asked if I could draw a bath. (I like to go to bed feeling clean; I shower at night when I'm at home.) She said sure, the noise wouldn't bother her, she'd wear earplugs.

I was aware that she was getting up for work the next day at 6 a.m. It was already 11 p.m., so at best, she would have seven hours of sleep. I also knew there was a chance that--ear plugs or no--the noise of the bath might keep her awake. So I chose to forgo the bath and this too, for me, was a sacrifice.


A Seamless Transition

Obviously, the "sacrifices" I made in Portland were not deprivations in any meaningful sense. But my question is: how long will any of us continue to be able to live in such a way that choices like those I just described can even feel like "sacrifices"?

Another evening during that Portland visit, five of us were watching the Miami Heat play the Dallas Mavericks in Game 5 of the NBA finals on my buddy's big-screen TV. (All of us were rooting passionately, though not all for the same team.) A major oil company commercial came on. The message was that this oil company was developing hydrogen fuel cells that might one day replace gasoline at our pumps, creating a quieter, sleeker, more efficient, pollution-free world.

Everyone had a response to this commercial. My own comment was that, based on what I'd read, hydrogen energy was not feasible and will not be feasible at any foreseeable time.

A friend of my godson's, about 21 years old, replied that in fact hydrogen power has already been developed. The problem, he explained, is that up until very recently, it took more energy to isolate the hydrogen atom from water than was actually yielded by the hydrogen fuel itself. In other words, there was a net loss of energy involved with using hydrogen for energy. However, he continued, as of today, the ratio is approximately one to one--and getting better. He was optimistic.

I thought: What if it's true? What if hydrogen power--perfectly clean energy; the only waste product of which is water--becomes the next oil? Would the planet's human population continue to increase by a billion or so every few decades? Could those of us in the developed world proceed with our current lifestyles, continually multiplying our comforts and conveniences, in bright many-storied buildings, powered by hydrogen?

And is this a vision of heaven or hell?

And then another thought: Not that we would need to worry about this in the short-term, but would the amount of water produced by hydrogen energy be equal to--or slightly less than--the amount of water used to generate the energy? And if the answer is "slightly less than," might humanity eventually have to use up significant portions of our seas and aquifers in order to power our limitless luxuries?

I asked the young man, "Do you think a seamless transition is possible from an oil-based economy to a world economy powered entirely by clean, renewable energy sources?"

"No," he said. "Because the people who run the power companies are too invested in oil and in making maximum profit in the short-term. That's their priority, and there is no indication that that will change."

"But what if every oil executive, every person with power in the entire world had a spiritual epiphany and suddenly realized that they must think about the impact of all their actions seven generations into the future, and that they must, above all, be good stewards of the earth? Then do you think a seamless transition to a renewable energy-powered world--one that preserves all our conveniences--would be possible?"

The answer in my own mind, based on what I've been reading over the last few years, was an unequivocal no. The magnitude of our consumption is too vast; the scalability and state of development of clean energy far too sketchy.

"Oh sure," my godson's friend replied. "Absolutely. I took a Sustainability course last semester. Scientists all over the world agree that we have the resources to provide a pretty good lifestyle for every person on Earth. I know there are wars happening and starvation and one third of the world's population doesn't even have access to a toilet and it's a bad scene, but it could be done. We do have the resources to provide everyone with basic plumbing, running water, flush toilets, electric lights, housing--a pretty good lifestyle."

"Everyone in the world can have all that? Sustainably?"

He didn't blink. "Definitely. I mean, I agree with you about America and how much we waste. That's not sustainable. But in human history, every time we've gotten to the brink of disaster, humanity comes to its senses."

I thought about it. "Really? Can you give me an historical example?"

He was silent a moment. Then he acknowledged, "Offhand, I can't think of one."

"Well," I said, "The way I see it, horrible, unspeakable, catastrophic things--including mass extinctions--occur all the time, and nothing stops them from happening."

"Yeah. And great, wonderful, fantastic things happen all the time as well. The daily news focuses on all the horrible stuff, which keeps us in a state of constant fear and tension. That's why I don't even look at the news anymore."

Very Small Sacrifices
A local friend told me something similar. He has stopped reading the news. He used to be a politics and world affairs junkie, but came to the conclusion that the news is toxic to his mind.

I compulsively read the news online every day and I suspect it adds about 10 points to my blood pressure. I never thought of it like this before, but maybe reading the news is a kind of sacrifice. I sacrifice my peace of mind so that I can be "informed," which, I imagine, makes me a more responsible citizen. Then again, I may just be addicted to the adrenaline hit.

There are other types of sacrifices I habitually make though--extremely small ones--all of which involve giving up some little measure of convenience. I bring my own cloth bags every time I go to the grocery store, for example. I believe absolutely everyone should do this. How much paper and plastic would be saved if everyone did this?

I always use the blank sides of 8 x 11 paper that has already been used once. When in town, I stop by the photocopy store and rummage through their box of discarded paper for intact one-sided pages that I can take home and use in my printer.

When I fill up my car's gas tank and use my ATM card, I always select the option for the pump NOT to print a receipt. Now that is a very small piece of paper, but I don't believe it's negligible. (It is a sacrifice of convenience for me, since I keep track of all my expenses, and therefore not having a receipt means I have to jot down the purchase immediately in the little notepad I use for this purpose, whereas if I got a receipt I could just stick it in my wallet and deal with it later.) (Of course, the more significant sacrifice would be to not drive at all . . .)

For a period of a few months last year, I got lazy and took a receipt at the gas pump, but this felt vaguely obscene. I think that feeling was accurate. It is obscene to consume paper (or plastic, or gasoline, or other resources) I don't need.

The impact of a small, thin gas pump receipt on trees and forests is pretty small. But when I respect a finite resource even at this basic level, it affirms the sacredness of each moment and the significance of every act. (The slogan of Daily Acts, a local sustainability organization, is: Every choice matters.)

I think everyone should live like this.

What Value, Personal Solutions?
Okay, who am I to preach? I drive, I consume electricity. A friend and I recently drove 30 minutes just to take an hour-long walk on the coast. I occasionally consume food products that come in throw-away plastic containers.

Still, I'm a relatively low-impact guy in a carelessly, ceaselessly high-impact culture. It isn't much to toot my horn about, but wouldn't it help if every American considered their environmental impact every day, in every choice they make? Driving less, consuming less paper and water, producing less garbage?

In a widely distributed essay entitled "Forget Shorter Showers," which was published in Orion magazine a couple of years ago, eco-activist Derrick Jensen argued that personal choices are not enough to protect the planet, and that focusing on personal change is a "systematic misdirection." For example, Jensen reported, "More than 90 percent of the water used by humans is used by agriculture and industry" and (quoting Kirkpatrick Sale) "individual [energy] consumption--residential, by private car, and so on--is never more than about a quarter of all consumption; the vast majority is commercial, industrial, corporate, by agribusiness and government."

Jensen concluded that the only serious-minded option available to anyone who truly wants to help preserve the planet's ecosystems is "acting decisively to stop the industrial economy" even though "those in power might try to kill us if we seriously impede their ability to exploit the world."

Okay, well, that sounds like revolution. Are you up for it?

Yet . . . if everyone conserved as much as they reasonably could--gasoline, electricity, paper, water, and other resources--would that have no significant impact?

Is it not the case that our individual choices and actions are precisely what power big industry? If we consume less, they pollute less. How could that not be so?

The bottom line is that our individual choices are all we have (whether or not we work, together with others, to take down modern industry!). If our lives have meaning, then our choices must matter. It's a simple binary equation: Either we matter or we don't, and if we do, then each choice is important.

At the Risk of . . .
I may be entering an obnoxious phase of life: broadcasting my opinions about what other people should do.

But the alternative of just keeping quiet, being "respectful," allowing people to find their own way and their own truth, just doesn't cut it anymore when the what-me-worry selfish assholes of the world are so loud and ubiquitous in promoting their values. Why concede the public forum to the brainless?

So I'm going to say: Everyone who lives in a developed country should begin (if they haven't already) to redefine sacrifice, and keep in mind the health of our planet with every choice we make and every product we buy or consume and every car trip we take. I'm not advocating that we deny ourselves joy. But understanding the cost of our pleasures and conveniences may make them that much more precious.

I also recommend tactlessly harping on this message to all our friends and associates.

The didgeridoo player I saw a couple of weeks ago in Occidental received his instruments from native Australian aborigines. He actually found one of them himself, on an "instrument vision quest." He played his didgeridoos with great skill and feeling. At the end of each piece he played, murmurs of pleasure rippled the room. I admire this man.

At one point he reached for a plastic bottle of Dasani water to remoisten his lips. This man who trekked through the bush with the aboriginals, who feels the power of nature, who reveres the earth. And he's drinking water out of disposable plastic?

I'll be sending him an email tonight.

Comments? Questions? Corrections?
Please send responses to marc@marcwordsmith.com.

Please visit marcwordsmith.com to learn more about my writing and editing services.

Or call me at (707) 827-3345.

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Watch Words (July, 2010)

The Face of God, the Flow of Love

Musings on God
I know it is possible to live in peace with what is, or I'm certain of it anyway, because I have heard (and I believe) that many people do live that way.

They trust that whatever life presents is a perfect manifestation of God, whether that is a person, a situation, a condition, or anything else. They respond to it all as a gift.

I would imagine such people are happy, and that often life "works out well" for them.

But are things working out for these people because they are attuned to a deep universal truth, or simply because the human brain is so fathomlessly powerful, and their ability to believe shapes their experience of reality?

I pray and I experience a relationship with God. Yet I consider God a mystery and I have no idea if any such entity or energy or what-have-you really exists. Even if God does exist, I understand that no concept I attach to "God" could begin to apprehend the nature of this "God" to whom I pray (in other words, I'm agnostic). Yet it seems to me that God responds to my prayers. For all I know really, it could be that this relationship I experience with "God" works for me even though it's an illusion created by my brain, with cooperation from my unconscious mind, ordering circumstances in my life and neurons in my mind to fire in such a way that occasionally lead me to episodes of peace or clarity.

Earlier today, I asked God to help me to remember these musings so I could write them down later. But, I stipulated: "Only help me to remember if You do exist independently from my mind." And then I laughed and I had to retract that stipulation because, what does "independently from my mind" mean? If the universe is "all One" (as all the mystics have stated in numerous ways), then how can anything, including God, be independent from anything else?

I didn't want to trip myself up here. Maybe God is not independent from my mind any more than my mind is independent from God. This is all beyond anything my mind can understand conceptually. Even the mind itself is beyond what the mind can understand.

And when we use the term "paradox," maybe that's all we mean really. Not that anything in the nature of the universe is self-contradictory, but just that certain types of phenomena are too vast for us to comprehend, and so they occasionally appear contradictory to our logical brains, and we call them "paradoxical." They blow our circuits a little.

For example, try contemplating "the beginning of time." Time had to start at some point, right? But then what happened before that? And before that?

Logic just has to say "uncle." Right?
 

God in Real Life
 
A friend was telling me recently that for nearly two decades she had thought of the dharma--the body of teachings of the Buddha--as the voice of God. "There is so much wisdom there," she said. "The dharma, to me, was the disembodied voice of God, and that was enough for me for many years. Then suddenly it wasn't enough."

It wasn't enough anymore because, due to circumstances beyond her control, my friend had lost her home, her marriage, and nearly all of her most important relationships. The pain was incredible.

"My mind was not my friend," she continued. "I needed help bigger than any person could give me. I needed not just the voice, but also the face of God and the hand of God, so I started looking. Where was God? How did I perceive God? Drawing on my years of Buddhist practice, I looked for God in the present moment. What I found is that God is in the present moment, giving endless amazing love and nurturance, which I was blind to the way an infant is blind to a parent's care. For example, right in this moment, there is a wall behind me, supporting my back with firmness and comfort. The floor underneath me holds up my body. Blankets around me keep me warm. I have a dear friend in front of me listening to what I say. I have a healthy body and a full belly and there are beautiful items on the wall. Where did it all come from? I absolutely experience it all as loving. My leap of faith is that it also has wisdom to make choices for my life better than my mind can."

Another Face of God
 My neighbor has a strange new dog. All puppies are energetic and affectionate but this one absolutely cannot stop from biting everything and everyone. Her bites don't hurt (much) of course, being puppy love bites. And I know this sounds like an overstatement--and a trite one at that--but she is the cutest dog I've ever seen in my life. She is a Shiba Inu, as my neighbor explained, a Japanese breed that does not shed, is extremely intelligent and emotionally independent, born house trained like cats, and with a face like a little fox.

Her name is Zuzu, like Jimmy Stewart's daughter in It's A Wonderful Life.  I had the privilege of holding her for five minutes at the farmer's market last week while my neighbor went looking for her grandchildren. In my arms, against my chest, Zuzu squirmed nonstop, peering about with furious curiosity. Her heart beat so rapidly it was a blur; I wondered how any creature could survive with a heartbeat that fast. Passersby were irresistibly drawn to her and at least one stated, with astonishment, "That is the cutest dog I've ever seen in my life." Everyone seemed pleased to offer Zuzu a couple of their fingers to chew, while patting her head with their free hands.

Sometimes, when I walk to my post office, I am tempted to knock on my neighbor's door, just to ask for a little "hit" of Zuzu. Zuzu lifts my spirits; she is so staggeringly carefree. Zuzu represents proof that it's possible to be worry-free in this troubled world. And who's to say that Zuzu is not one face of God?

Oh there is one thing I neglected to mention. That day at the farmer's market, when I lifted Zuzu from my neighbor's arms, Zuzu quickly delivered a sharp bite to my ear, which bled a little. I pretended I didn't mind, and in fact I was thrilled to hold Zuzu, but it definitely stung.

Does this mean that the love of God can be painful? Or just that I need to be more careful when I hold a biting puppy? Or do these two questions basically get at the same point?

God on the Beach
 
Shell Beach, just north of Bodega Bay, CA, has marvelous huge rock formations. The ocean is too cold and rough for swimming, but it's a stunningly beautiful and refreshing place to walk or just sit on one of the abstract-art-like wide flat rocks that litter the sandscape.

To get to the beach from the parking lot above, you have to walk down a steep flight of thin wooden stairs, at the top of which is a sign that cautions you about "beachcombers," rogue waves that can swoop in suddenly and sweep you back out to sea with them. The sign warns that people have died here. It is a human reminder that nature doesn't care about you; nature is pretty but not friendly.

I think of the pelican draped in black oil, from a photo that was featured repeatedly in the news right after the Gulf oil spill exploded.  I feel shame. No wonder nature doesn't like us. What did that poor pelican ever do to me? I can blame BP, or maybe I can blame President Obama for not "responding more quickly" to the spill, but the bottom line is, I drive a car (often for trivial reasons), I turn on my heater when I'm a little chilly (even in July!), I have a refrigerator (doesn't everybody?). It's to service the lifestyles of millions of people like me that the energy companies do insane things, like drill huge holes miles below the ocean surface.

My friend--the same one who explained to me how she experiences the face of God in each moment--told me that she sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night with a dreadful sense that something is wrong and it's her fault.

I know that feeling. It roils in my gut, particularly when I read the news, such as the details about the ongoing consequences of the oil spill, and how it is imminently going to pollute the beaches where I grew up in South Florida: Miami, Hollywood, Dania, Fort Lauderdale. They're all on the Atlantic Coast, not the Gulf Coast, but much of the (hundreds of millions of gallons of) leaked oil has entered into the Gulf Stream "loop current" and is headed around the Florida Keys and upward. Just a matter of time now, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says. (Or rather, a 60 to 80% probability that it's just a matter of time.)

I've known for years that American industry has gone into small, weak countries, and destroyed ecosystems and water ways and indigenous human habitats. I read Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins, which tells the story of some of the little-known environmental holocausts that have been perpetrated to sustain American privilege. But because this knowledge is out of sight, I have more or less managed to forget about it on most days. It's an abstraction, like a civil war in some far-distant country, which I read about and think "Oh how horrible. Thank God I don't live there."

Yet, because I'm an American, living a privileged life of material luxury (relative to the vast majority of the world), I'm implicated in the destruction of foreign lands and rivers, and my grief over the beaches of my youth is blatant environmental NIMBYism. (That's "Not In My Back Yard-ism" . . . but you knew that.) But at least now there is no escaping the fact that I'm living in the same world, and sharing at least a few of the same losses, as people whom our powers-that-be regularly exploit.

I'm having these thoughts on Shell Beach, where this as-yet unspoiled stretch of Pacific Ocean--not swimmable like the Atlantic, but nonetheless glorious and loaded with life--smacks against the tall, shining monolithic rocks that stand slightly offshore. Now and again, a seal pokes her head above the surf. This wild foaming beauty, this elixir air, this unbridled exultation feels like it must be the very love of God, right in my face, the strong breeze right on my face, soothing my heart (as my friend's walls and blankets support her) unconditionally, blasting away notions of blame. For a moment, I can let go of analysis, fear, pride, and even responsibility, and just feel helplessly, needfully nurtured, like an infant.

Close Encounters with God
One summer evening in 1989, I went to a Grateful Dead show in Sacramento with some friends. Soon after the concert started, I began to feel claustrophobic, overwhelmed by stimuli, so I left my group of friends, slowly squeeze-threading my way out of the crowd.

The Cal Expo in Sacramento was bowl-shaped, with refreshment stands and patches of flat grass along the perimeter outside the main "container" where the show took place (and where human bodies stood dancing and writhing, very close together). I breathed a deep breath of relief upon obtaining the more spacious perimeter area. But even here, things were weird and agitating. Lots of people walking around with huge plastic cups of beer, talking in loud boisterous voices.

I walked the perimeter until I found a relatively quiet space, away from the vendor stands and electric lights, on a cool patch of grass in a dark spot. I sat down to breathe deep and ground my energy.

An attractive young woman approached. She wore a knee-length skirt and a formal white blouse with a collar; her hair was shining and styled; she did not look "hippie" at all. "Hi," she said. "Hello," I replied, and she sat down with me.

Though it was getting dark, I could see that her face was carefully made up. Whatever perfume she was wearing was not patchouli, or any essential oil. It struck me as an unpleasantly sweet, artificial scent--something that a woman of my parents' generation might have worn to a fancy ballroom party. What is this person doing at a Dead show? I wondered.

"Isn't this fun?" she demanded, her eyes sharp in the dimming ambient light.

Carefully, I replied, "Sure. Are you having fun?"

"Oh definitely. I'm doing great! I lost my mother, but I'm okay!" Her face never seemed to change expression. She did not smile. She looked intent.

"You . . . lost your . . . mother?" The phrase reverberated through my mind like a hall of mirrors and I found them unbearably sad, perhaps the saddest words I'd ever heard in my life, though I had no idea if she meant that she'd gotten temporarily separated from her mom here at this show, or if her mother had passed away, or abandoned her when she was little, or . . . who knew? But it was archetypal, laden with meaning, and unspeakably tragic. "I'm sorry," I whispered, shaken.

"Oh it's fine!" she replied brightly. "I mean--isn't this great?"

I nodded. I did not know exactly what she meant was great (the concert perhaps, though neither of us was paying it any attention at the moment; or the whole scene maybe), nor did I know what I was doing, but I leaned forward and took her in my arms and, apparently unsurprised, she flowed into my chest like water. Her perfume (or was it hair spray??) was wicked in my nose and lungs. I cradled her head for about a minute, stroked and kissed her hair, and rocked slowly back and forth. Then she looked up at me.

Her eyes were flat and depthless. "Isn't this fun?" she asked again, ferociously.

All at once I experienced a powerful sense of the infinite possibilities present in any moment, but particularly in this one, along with the countless drives, impulses, desires, fantasies, and fears that lived in me like a million feral animals. It occurred to me that she might let me peel away her clothes, and that this could easily, naturally turn into a sexual interaction, and I could be capable of enjoying her body, even in this unusual situation and frame of mind. But what I realized would be impossible was to actually reach her, befriend her. She had lost something, all right, and it was more than a mother. Maybe she'd lost her mind, and if I engaged with her much more, I could lose my own.

I felt a clutch of fear. Not of her; I saw her as helpless. I perceived us both as helpless. But some alarm instinct kicked in, and my psyche closed down to whatever she was offering, like a series of barred gates slamming shut.

"I'm sorry," I said, gently moving her away from my lap. "I have to go." I stood up.

She watched me, apparently unfazed. "Have fun," she said.

I stumbled back into the main arena and headed through the crowd in the direction of my friends, whose warmth and company I now wanted urgently. When I found them, my relief was so palpable I wondered if anyone could sense it.

But the odd young woman whom I'd just abandoned haunted my mind. I felt spooked, and terribly guilty for having left her. Perhaps I could have, and should have, invited her back with me to my group of friends. Why hadn't that occurred to me at the time? They would have welcomed her. This little group could have absorbed her.

Later, in the hotel room that five of us shared that night, I told the story to a friend. I was riddled with remorse, having gone over the scene again in my mind numerous times.

"I don't get it," my friend said. "What do you feel guilty about?"

"I just left her there all alone."

"So, maybe she was alone at the show. Why is that a problem?"

"But she said she'd lost her mother."

"Well then, she probably found her mother after you left her and she's probably with her right now."

I needed desperately to explain. I had to come clean about this.  "But--she was in need! And she came to me and I turned away! I shut down the flow of love to this person!"

"Hey." My friend took me by the shoulders and looked at me soberly. "You cannot 'shut down the flow of love.' Who do you think you are?" She pointed to the sink outside the bathroom. "See that faucet over there? Your love is like that one little spigot. The flow of love is everywhere."

Comments? Questions? Corrections?
 
Please send responses to marc@marcwordsmith.com.

Please visit marcwordsmith.com to learn more about my writing and editing services.
Or call me at (707) 827-3345.

It's fine to quote, forward, or crib from this e-newsletter. A link to my Web site is always appreciated.
 
 

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Watch Words (April, 2010)

When the Unimaginable Hits Home

I was curled up on my couch one evening last month, reading a book about peak oil and climate change, and the inevitable lower-energy-consumption future that awaits us all. I got up to boil some water for tea and found that there was barely the thinnest imaginable thread of water running from my kitchen faucet. It would have taken thirty minutes or more to fill the teakettle.

I checked the bathroom sink and the tub. Same thing.

I called my neighbors to find out if the problem was widespread. Camp Meeker, the small village in the redwoods where I live, has had water issues in the past. Just last year, there was a "boil water" order in force for a week, due to a main pipe leak. But this time, I quickly learned, the trouble was only at my house.

I called my landlady who advised me to check the spigots outside, which, as it turned out, seemed to be functioning just fine. This was a relief--sort of. When I called the 24-hour line for the Russian River water utility and described my situation, I was informed that, since the issue was confined to my house, and I did have some water, it was not an emergency, and there was nothing they could do. From the information I had given them, they could deduce that the source of the problem was on my premises, not in their jurisdiction. I would need to call a plumber.

I couldn't shower that night. I usually shower at the end of the day; I like to go to bed feeling clean. Stress and disorientation woke me after about five hours of fitful sleep. I waited a few hours to call my landlady again on her cell phone. She was in Santa Cruz for the weekend and couldn't deal with the situation. She gave me the go-ahead to get a plumber, whoever I could find.

Most of the plumbers did not answer; I reached message machines. It was raining that day, which made it an extra hassle to go outside to fetch water--for drinking, refilling the toilet tank after flushing, washing dishes. So I kept calling around until someone picked up.

The plumber I did reach, and an assistant, came over about 11 a.m. and quickly saw that even my outside spigots were only producing a relatively low flow, so the leak was upstream from the house. They found it near my water meter, at the site of the pressure reduction valve, which was corroded and cracked. The plumbers told me that they would need to drive to Santa Rosa to pick up a replacement for the damaged part. I asked them for an estimate on the total cost of the job and got it: $655.

After they left to get the part, I called my landlady to update her. When I told her the price tag (which I would deduct from my rent), she was upset. I understood why when I thought about it; the plumbers were charging $110 an hour apiece for their time, including the drive to Santa Rosa and back. But what was the alternative? My landlady said that "next time" she might ask me to wait a few hours, until she could get hold of someone she knew who could do the job for a reasonable price. But to my mind that was a dicey proposition. If she couldn't reach one of her people, I might be stuck without water service for another day or more.

The plumbers came back, fixed the leak, and my water supply and pressures returned to normal. I felt spoiled. Not because my landlady would ultimately pay the plumbing bill; that's just the way it works when you're a tenant. You don't have the security of knowing you can live in your home forever, but you're also not responsible when things break down.

But I felt pampered, having just read that "normal" electric service is the equivalent of fifty slaves furiously pedaling away on stationary bicycles to generate my energy all day and night. And water from the tap doesn't simply flow out by force of gravity; it's pumped from somewhere, with electrical energy.

In the days before home electricity and modern plumbing--a fairly short time ago in human history--people had to fetch water from wells and streams. Going outside one's home for water was a fact of life, not a horrendous inconvenience. In fact, to have only to step outside one's door and fill water buckets from something as astonishing as a spigot would have been viewed as a miraculous, incomprehensible luxury. Yet I had found it intolerable. For less than twenty-four hours.

How come? It was not a terrible physical burden. It was not so unpleasant to get a little wet in the rain, and then come in and dry off. I wasn't even really worried about catching a cold.

But fear had made it seem unbearable. I was afraid I couldn't afford the time. I had too much to do; life was bearing down on me. I needed my normal comforts to function properly, to get stuff done! I work at home, and I always feel like I'm racing time. I couldn't stand this disruption of my routine.

Yet I was aware, based on what I'd been reading, that things may get a lot more inconvenient for all of us, and even the days of water spigots may be (forgive the pun) tapped out at some point in our lives.

So what could make it tolerable?

If our abundant electricity and limitless conveniences went extinct, I personally might be helpless. I don't have many practical skills. I've scarcely ever weeded a garden, much less dug a well. I've never successfully built a campfire on my own, even with matches. Would I have anything to contribute in a post-carbon, power-down world?

In the back of my mind, I've long imagined that the down slope of peak energy consumption may look something like Mao's Cultural Revolution, and that soft intellectual types, such as myself, will require "reeducation" and be forced into some sort of land-based indentured servitude. I imagine wielding a shovel or a pick all day, and shivering in the cold at night--my just desserts for a life of privilege.

So there it is: guilt. Another hidden ghost that makes going without running water for a day--and the thought of a power-down world--intolerable.

In The Transition Handbook, Rob Hopkins makes the point that humanity ascended the oil slope with enormous ingenuity and inventiveness, perhaps not all of it positive, but highly creative nonetheless. Cheap energy has made incredible things possible, from computers and air conditioning, to stereo speakers and airplanes, to bombs and leaf blowers. But these are products not just of fossil fuels, but also of human brilliance and innovation.

Hopkins suggests that humanity now has an opportunity to apply commensurate creativity and brilliance on the down slope. Hopkins offers visions of local-based, interconnected economies, new forms of commerce, community life, interdependence, transportation, communication, conservation. And much of this has already been put into practice, in model "transition towns" around the world.

But I'm wondering what types of spiritual, social, and psychological technologies the human genius will need to develop as we slide down the energy slope. Because transitioning to a world of severely curtailed conveniences is not merely a practical matter.

For example, on the day that my water was not running, if I had possessed the skill--the "consciousness technology" if  you will--to experience every moment as sacred and vibrant, I doubt I'd have been so unsettled.

Here's hoping that human "technologies of the heart" can calm and supersede our collective fears, our insularity, our greed, and even our desperation when it comes to that.
 

Comments? Questions? Corrections?
 
Please send responses to marc@marcwordsmith.com.

Please visit marcwordsmith.com to learn more about my writing and editing services.
Or call me at (707) 827-3345.

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Watch Words (February, 2010)

What Gets Heard

The New Cacophony
The Supreme Court handed down a ruling last month that may destroy our democracy.

The tricky thing about free speech is that if everyone is talking at once, only the loudest voice gets heard. If you have a room with, say, eight to ten people, and they're trying to discuss a subject or resolve some issue, and one individual has a megaphone and yells into it nonstop, drowning out everyone else, is this an exercise of free speech?

The John Roberts Supreme Court seems to think so, and they just gave big corporations an overwhelming megaphone, reversing over 100 years of federal (and state-level) campaign finance law that had been upheld repeatedly by previous Courts.

The effects of this ruling will manifest over time, very possibly this year. For example, it may help to defeat long-time Democratic senators Harry Reid and Barbara Boxer, both of whom stand for reelection.

In the meantime, most of us have other things to pay attention to.

The Cry of Pain
I feel hurt by the Supreme Court ruling. I want to cry out, like those idiot Tea Party protesters: "I want my country back!"

Meanwhile, my friend David in Atlanta has responded to a different cry, the cry of pain from Haiti. Just giving money to the Red Cross felt too easy, so he put out a call for donations of real goods--shoes, clothes, canned foods, medical supplies, tools, toiletries, gloves--and he promised to somehow get it all to Haiti. At first he invited the general public to bring donations to his own front porch, but the area in front of his house was quickly inundated. He eventually needed to partner with City Storage in Atlanta, and secure the help of "some of Bill Clinton's people" to arrange for the transport of goods. (For more information, see donationsforhaiti.org)

Another friend said she heard on the radio about orphanages in Haiti and it was "killing her"; she is in the process of arranging to go there, to help care for the children.

The images and reports from Haiti are being heard, and people are responding, some with money, others with direct action. The response has been raw, visceral, and authentic.

(The stories keep coming. Today I heard from yet another friend that a seafood buffet restaurant in Daly City, CA donated all its revenue for a day--including tips--to Haitian relief efforts. This restaurant, which seats over 500, saw waiting lines out the door all day long.)

Other Distress Calls
I recently read the book The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith, which disputes the idea that being a vegetarian can help save the planet. Ms. Keith points out that, apart from anything else (and there is much else), human agricultural practices have been inexorably depleting our topsoil for centuries, and this process has greatly accelerated with the introduction of petrochemical fertilizer mere decades ago, rapidly squeezing out every last ounce of productivity from our remaining fertile ground.

Keith offers no hope. If you read her book and believe her research--which is amply footnoted and quite impressive--then you must agree that the number of humans alive has already exceeded the Earth's carrying capacity multiple times over; "green technology" is a fairy tale that cannot save us; and we're headed for a massive crash very soon.

Currently, perhaps as a tonic to Keith, I'm reading Tom Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded. Friedman recognizes the same crises that Keith does, yet holds out hope of possibility for a sustainable future. (I haven't reached the hopeful section of the book yet, so I don't precisely know what price Friedman envisions we must collectively pay, but I trust he won't prescribe easy answers.)

The cry of our planet--the decimation of species, the slaughtering of forests, the draining of aquifers, the depletion of life-sustaining resources everywhere--is, I think, for most of us, a constant background noise. We hear it, but we're so used to it that we don't respond.

Selective Listening
We are intelligent enough to imagine the pain that we don't see, pain that is not right in front of our eyes, such as the suffering of the inhabitants of Port-au-Prince. We are even sensitive enough (most of us) to feel compassion for nonhuman life; few of us would lack sympathy, for example, for an injured dog keening in pain.

Yet most Americans habitually consume the carcasses of animals that have been tortured, subjected to misery beyond imagining in the commercial concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) where they were raised to become food for humans.

Similarly, very few of us pay attention to the cries of pain from the wilderness, the displaced and immiserated creatures, the clear cutting of trees, the disappearing plant and animal species.

If we were to let all this into the field of our awareness, how exactly might we respond?

No Business As Usual
A group of political activists in the San Francisco Bay Area have, over the years, staged protests entitled "No Business As Usual," to bring dramatic attention to wars and other ongoing atrocities. Occasionally, NBAU protesters have succeeded in, for example, holding up traffic for hours on the Golden Gate Bridge.

The net effect of their efforts has been to infuriate and alienate a lot of people.

"This can't go on!" is their message.

"Get a life!" is the general response.

Listening to Fear
I think many people hear more than they realize. I doubt there has ever been a time in history when more people have been haunted by vague fears, free-floating anxiety, stemming from who-knows-where.

Perhaps unwisely, I deliberately seek out the voices of fear, because I want to know the truth, and the truth of the human condition is very scary right now. (Maybe it always was.)

Listening to Faith
An old pal once put it like this: "I believe absolutely that the spiritual realm has things under control, even if I don't understand what the spiritual realm actually is."

To paraphrase: my friend believes that as awful as things appear, and despite all the terrible things that are happening and have already happened and have yet to happen, existence is not random, there is a benign undercurrent pervading the universe, and in the words of T.S. Eliot, "All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

What more could anyone possibly wish to believe?

The Long, Long View
I attended a presentation recently, put on by a group called the Pachamama Alliance, which focused on the planet's ecological crises and diminishing resources, and traced the situation we're in to historical patterns of greed, exploitation, and mushrooming population.

However, they also examined what is known about the origins of life, the miracle that we are here at all, the vast cosmological forces that had to conspire to bring human beings into existence. Taking the longest view possible, they put our current dilemma into an epochal perspective, from which it is possible to feel not only great awe but also boundless hope, even optimism.

The Pachamama Alliance does not prescribe a specific program for action. They don't claim to know what any individual should do. Their only directive is "Don't go back to sleep." Apart from that, they offer suggestions about educating ourselves, getting involved in policy discourse and community organizations, and engaging others in "this conversation." (For more information, see awakeningthedreamer.org.)

What Are You Hearing Now?
The facilitators at the Pachamama event suggested that we look inside and listen to our own deepest wisdom to tell us what we, as individuals, need to do now, how we need to "plug in."

Who could dispute such advice?

Then again, who can follow it? Presuming you can discern a "voice" inside yourself, how can you tell if it's the voice of wisdom, as opposed to, say, the voice of vain hope, or self-deception, or your parents' judgment, or deeply imbedded institutional logic?

Still, whatever truth there is to be found inside us cannot be drowned out by advertising or propaganda, regardless of how pervasive the noise is, or how broad the Court's ruling.

Our collective response to the Haitian earthquake seems to indicate that, at the very least, there yet lives an honorable American spirit, capable of responding to the plain truth of others' suffering.

Namaste. Peace. God bless America.

Tangentially Relevant Quotes
"We can't save the world--the world is saving itself. We can align with those forces."
                    --Compassionate Listening Project

"Pray, take care of people, be actively grateful for your blessings, give away your money--you're cool."
                    --Anne Lamott

Comments? Questions? Corrections?
Please send responses to marc@marcwordsmith.com.

Please visit marcwordsmith.com to learn more about my writing and editing services.
Or call me at (707) 827-3345.

It's fine to quote, forward, or crib from this e-newsletter. A link to my Web site is always appreciated.
 
 

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Watch Words (September, 2009)

May It Please the Court

Judicial Coup

Remember Bush v. Gore, 2000? Were you among the millions of Americans who felt robbed and disenfranchised by that ruling? Did you feel, momentarily, as if your democracy—your country as you’d known it—had been snatched away by five politically-motivated right-wing U.S. Supreme Court justices?

Well, this time they are playing for keeps. The Court is poised to (again by a 5 to 4 vote) overturn more than a century of laws and Court precedents that limit corporate spending in elections.
 

So What? Don’t Corporations Already Run the Show?

 Corporate political action committees (PACs) spend hundreds of millions of dollars in elections already. Can it get substantively worse? Yes.

 During the 2008 election cycle, the major political parties spent a total of approximately $1.5 billion, including corporate PAC money. During that same period of time, the combined profits—not revenues, but profits—of Fortune 100 companies was $605 billion. (Revenues were upwards of $13 trillion.)

 So what might be the practical consequences of “opening the floodgates” of corporate money into our electoral process?

A Simple Illustration—Did You Vote for Obama?

In the 2008 presidential election campaign, Senator John McCain raised $35 million from 827,000 small donors. Candidate Barack Obama raised $178 million from 3.7 million small donors.

By any analysis, unlimited corporate spending would end the significance of small donor involvement in campaigns.

In fact, without restrictions on corporate spending, the 2008 presidential campaign might well have had a different result. It certainly would have played out much, much differently.

We Can Do Something

 Theoretically, Supreme Court justices operate in a realm apart from politics, insulated from popular opinion. But that’s not really true. They care a lot about public confidence in the Court. Chief Justice John Roberts is on record about that.

 You can’t email the Supreme Court, but you can send letters to the justices.

 Here’s my letter. Please copy it and send it too, or write your own.

Dear Justice _______,

 Thank you for your service to our country on the Supreme Court, and for your dedication to our Constitution.

 I am profoundly concerned about the case of Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission. Depending on what the Court rules, I am frightened that the free speech of the very powerful may overwhelm the free speech of everyone else, and that such an outcome is not in the spirit of what our Founding Fathers intended.

Please bear in mind these forward-looking words of President Abraham Lincoln: “I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. Corporations have been enthroned, an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money-power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until the wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”

Also, please recall the warning of Thomas Jefferson: “I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”

 Please do not consign our democracy to the tender mercies of our monied corporations. Please remember that you hold a sacred trust, passed down to you through the centuries. The fate of America, this grand experiment in civil democracy, rests with you, the highest court in the land.

Again, thank you very much for your devoted service.

Sincerely,
 

The mailing address of the U.S. Supreme Court is:

United States Supreme Court
1 First Street N.E.
Washington, D.C. 20543

Send letters to:

Chief Justice John Roberts
Justice Antonin Scalia
Justice Samuel Alito
Justice Clarence Thomas
Justice Anthony Kennedy
Justice John Paul Stevens
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Justice Stephen Breyer
Justice Sonia Sotomayor

 The Story

 This all started with a movie about Hillary Clinton. Hillary: The Movie was produced by a corporate-funded right-wing group, Citizens United. The movie was a hit piece on then-Senator Clinton, who was running for president.

The film was shown in some theaters, and also available on DVD. But under the provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (also known as the McCain-Feingold bill), it was deemed an “electioneering communication” and prohibited from being broadcast on satellite television during the election season.

Citizens United went to court, claiming that Hillary: The Movie was not an “electioneering communication” because it did not explicitly advocate a vote for or against Senator Clinton. They also argued that campaign finance law should not be applicable to a feature-length documentary film.

Citizen United’s case was dismissed by the District Court. So they appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

 And Then Things Got Weird

The Supreme Court heard the case but declined to rule on it. Instead, they ordered the parties to come back months later and reargue the case on different grounds. They directed both sides to address the larger question of whether key provisions of campaign finance law should be struck down as unconstitutional, and previous Court decisions on such matters should be overturned.

 In other words, the justices took it upon themselves to reframe the case in much broader terms, with vastly farther-reaching ramifications.

 Other Voices on the Potential Consequences of this Case

New York Times: “Money from big business could overwhelm the electoral process, as well as the making of laws on issues like tax policy and bank regulation. . . . it would usher in an unprecedented age of special-interest politics. Corporations would have an enormous say in who wins federal elections. They would be able to use this influence to obtain subsidies, stimulus money, and tax loopholes, and to undo protections for investors, workers, and consumers.”

Public Citizen (nonprofit consumer advocacy group): “Since this nation has not seen a political landscape with unlimited corporate spending in recent memory [since 1907], it is difficult to know for sure how much more money will pour into elections. But recent patterns of corporate spending . . . strongly suggest that new direct corporate spending could flow in staggering amounts.”

 Elena Kagan, U.S. Solicitor General (from her brief to the Supreme Court): “Use of corporate treasury funds for electoral advocacy is inherently likely to corrode the political system . . . Corporations can use electoral spending to curry favor with particular candidates and thus to acquire undue influence over the candidates’ behavior once in office.”

 Judicial Restraint??

Chief Justice John Roberts ascended to the Court extolling the virtues of judicial restraint. Judicial restraint means deciding cases on as narrow a ground as possible, so as not to – in Roberts’ own words– “jolt the legal system.”

 As the New York Times observed on September 8: “Normally, the court tries not to decide cases on constitutional grounds if they can be resolved more simply. Here the court is reaching out to decide a constitutional issue that could change the direction of American democracy.”

Public Citizen: “The rehearing will go far beyond the original challenge posed by Citizens United and reconsider instead whether the entire framework restricting corporate and union spending on explicit campaign advertising is constitutional.”

Former Federal Elections Commission chairman, Trevor Potter: “The Supreme Court has changed the case. It started with a question of whether a particular film funded with for-profit corporate money could be advertised on television. The Supreme Court has turned it into a case about whether 100 years of American tradition of regulating the speech of for-profit corporations in elections should be changed.”

 Is It A Question of Free Speech?

 If you would give a corporation all the rights of a human individual, then this is a question of free speech.

However, over 100 years of state and federal laws (and Court decisions) have recognized important distinctions between humans and corporations.

Again, Trevor Potter: “Corporations exist solely to make money, to amass economic power. . . . Individuals have a whole range of interests. . . they care about religious and social issues, they care about the future of the country. . . Speech is a good thing. The question though is should it be citizens, individuals, voters who are speaking? Or should it be this artificial corporate entity, which we have, through law, given enormous power to? And what the Court has said [historically] is there is a difference between the two. The Court has never said that corporations have the right to unlimited political speech.”

At least until now, the Court has never said that.

What Can We Hope For?

We can hope for a narrow ruling. We can hope that the Court will deliver an opinion that perhaps (for example) allows TV cable stations to air political films during an election season, but otherwise does not unravel a century of campaign finance law.

The narrower the ruling—the more specifically it hews to the facts of this particular case—the less damage it will do.

To Learn More About This

This is a massively important story but headlines are not screaming about it. Though it profoundly affects our lives, constitutional law is not a “sexy” topic.

I first learned about all this on the outstanding PBS program, Bill Moyers’ Journal. If you google “Bill Moyers Journal Abrams Potter video” the first hit will take you directly to a video of that show.

 If you google “scotus wiki citizens united fec” the first hit will take you to a very detailed history and analysis of this case, as well as links to all the Court briefs filed by the respective parties.

I’ll be sending my letter to all the justices, contacting Public Citizen and other groups, and generally keeping my ear to the ground about this. Any other suggestions? Please send them along.

God bless America. Thanks for reading.
 
 

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Watch Words (January, 2008)

Reaching Back for Words of Hope

John Seed, the Australian rainforest activist and teacher, said this in 1991:

"In the end nothing but a miracle would be of any use at this time. When you look at the rate of destruction, whether it's of the rainforest or the ozone layer, the climate, all of these things that are happening, and if you were to multiply all of the efforts of conservationists by a factor of ten or even a hundred, it wouldn't be enough.

So there's nothing on the horizon that can help us, you know. And so then you think well, what kind of a miracle would that be? Well, it would be a very simple one, really. All that it would need would be for human beings to wake up one day different than they were the day before and realizing that this is the end unless we make these changes, and then deciding to make the change.

That doesn't seem like a very likely thing to happen, but on the other hand the whole road that we've traveled is so littered with miracles that it's only our strange kind of modern psyche that refuses to see it. I mean the miracle of being descended from a fish that chose to leave the water and walk on the land, well, anyone with a pedigree like that, you can't lose hope."

Because 1991 was 17 years ago, and because the miracle hasn't happened yet, the effect of Mr. Seed's words wore off on me.

But I was reminded of them recently when I listened to an old Pink Floyd record, and the first verse of the song "Echoes":

Overhead the albatross hangs motionless upon the air
And deep beneath the rolling waves
In labyrinths of coral caves
The echo of a distant time
Comes willowing across the sand
And everything is green and submarine

And no-one showed us to the land
And no-one knows the wheres or whys
But something stirs and something tries
And starts to climb towards the light

Even George W. Bush is descended from that noble fish.

Happy belated new year. May 2008 be full of reasons for hope.

 

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