Dec 042019
 

Sometimes I feel like we’re living in the End Times. When I was a child and a teen in the 1960s and ‘70s, I encountered Jehovah’s Witnesses and Jesus freaks who insisted that the time was nigh. I vaguely figured that, if they were right, human existence would come to an end (via thermonuclear war or the rapture or an asteroid or …. ) probably right around the year 2000.

Now that particular due date has expired. Nonetheless, we are threatened with runaway climate change, diminishing fresh water supplies (and other impending resource crises), and, yes, nuclear war. It’s terrifying. I would never choose to bring a child into such a world as this.

Then again, when I was in my 20s during the Reagan administration back in the 80s, I made a similar calculation regarding the practical implications of fathering a child. I wasn’t at all sure a child born then would grow up into a livable world. Today, as it turns out, many of my favorite people were born during that decade or even later.

I was born in 1958. The Russians had recently obtained the bomb. Fascists ruled all over the planet: Mao, Kruschev, Franco, Batista, Mobuto. Mainstream American culture was oppressively conformist, racist, narrow minded, spiritless. The future would not have looked promising to a guy like me and I would NEVER have chosen to bring a child into the world back in ’58.

Lately I’m observing that amazing stuff continues to happen, some of it very good, and that by and large, the young people I meet are far wiser than I and my peers were when we were their age.  At the Beloved Festival in OR a few summers ago, I said to a young man of about 23 that I was so sorry not to be leaving him and his friends a better world, and I only wished I could serve them in some way with the time I have left. He clasped my hands to his heart, and said, “You’re doing it now, brother, just by walking your path.”

Dec 042019
 

Growing up in the sixties and seventies, I loved pop music, but my stepdad, a big band musician who had entertained presidents, detested rock and roll. He explained why the music I liked was bad music. Besides being too loud, it was too simple. It lacked depth and complexity. Sometimes my stepdad’s sophisticated musical friends piled on. One of them put it to me like this: “See—you know what you like; but I know what’s good.”

That staggered me. I think I was 17 at the time. When the guy said that, he looked so satisfied with himself. I knew I was looking into the face of a peculiar (yet common) type of insanity.

  ***

Music, for me, is the easiest zone of life in which to know what I really like.

But I actually can’t think of a single other zone of life where it comes quite so naturally to know what I really like. Not even reading. Definitely not conversation.

Have you ever tried to stay really mindful in a conversation, noticing how your body feels, noticing if you’re happy? Noticing those moments where—oof!—something didn’t feel right, something triggered you? Or something mellowed you, warmed you, made you smile?

Social conversation, like music, like sex, like sleep, should never be a ground of struggle.

What are some of the things we do to make conversation as easy and pleasing to move with as music?

Dec 042019
 

I was listening to some beautiful music in my house, and it felt so sacred that I did not want to leave the room, but it was time to get ready for bed and brush my teeth.

I left the music playing as I did my nightly ablutions. I felt so calm. I realized that in the proper frame of mind, even the humming of the electric toothbrush may be received as a sacred sound.

I release control and surrender to the flow of love that will heal me.

– Alexa Sunshine Rose

Dec 042019
 

On the sidewalk outside New Seasons grocery store sat a man with leather-like skin, his cheeks and mouth a maze of wrinkles, leaning against his backpack. His crude cardboard sign said “Anything helps” on one side “Do something kind” on the other. The sign was fairly small; it too leaned against his backpack (at a kind of side angle so both sides could be visible … if you looked).

The man did not actively seek eye contact; he let his sign and appearance speak for him.

I gave him a dollar. I was a little arrested by the light of spirit in his eyes.

I remembered that I also had some loose change I wanted to get rid of – pennies and such – so I gave him that too, maybe 60 cents. He thanked me and we had a short conversation during which he alluded to putting away enough spare change to get himself some mac and cheese. I told him I’d bring him mac and cheese from inside the store, which I did. (Cost me $3.51.) When I gave it to him, I told him I’d come back for the plate when I was done shopping, but when I got back out again, the plate was gone. He had brought it back inside himself.

I had a modest dessert for him – a bite of cheesecake in a tiny paper cup. (They were giving out free samples in the store).

We shook hands and exchanged first names and said goodbye, but it took me a minute or two to load my bike baskets, during which he continued to talk to me a little. He thought I had dropped a key. (I had not; the key in question belonged to someone else.) As I was folding my jacket to stuff on top of my groceries, he made a comment about summer being here now and I replied, without much thought, “Yeah, but this crazy Portland weather … I left from my house on my bike at about 4:30 (it was now slightly after 6) and I had on THREE LAYERS then … and now I’m down to this t-shirt.”

He offered a pained grin. “Yeah, I’m down to my basics,” he replied casually.

I said, well, it was nice meeting him, hopped on my bike and pedaled away.

As I rode, it occurred to me that I had not wanted to ask the obvious question, which was “What exactly are your basics?” I hadn’t even noticed that that question had hung in the air.

I wonder how many other obvious questions I do not ask, because my mind blocks them from my sight, for various reasons.

Dec 042019
 

On a recent hike, I saw a lady walking her dog, and the dog was busy sniffing at everything in sight, completely immersed in the present moment, and I thought, “That dog is lucky he knows nothing about global warming and could never understand it, much less worry about it.”

But then I realized that from a universal standpoint – say, a god’s-eye-view – there really isn’t too much evolutionary distance between me and the dog. Our DNA is probably about 90% similar, or more.  

Who knows what a truly higher intelligence might perceive, looking at ME? 

So maybe, instead of envying the dog, I could be grateful for all the things I can’t possibly conceive to worry about.

Dec 042019
 

Recently I started reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. Following Kondo’s program of discarding clothes, books, papers and other objects I don’t love, I can testify that LESS IS CERTAINLY MORE in this realm too. Getting rid of stuff (mostly by giving it away) that I don’t need or love affords me more peace of mind, precision of thought, ease of movement, productivity and comfort. (And of course it’s fun to do stoned.)

I depopulated my clothes closet by more than 30 percent. Freeing up zones of the closet floor, where I’d stacked shoeboxes of photographs, old cassette tapes and, yes, some shoes, I uncovered impertinently thick, bold dust bunnies that apparently thought they’d established dominion. Vacuuming them up felt like airing out the corners of my soul. An explosion of energy and clarity!

So I’ve been thinking about this whole “less is more” concept. I’m in big grief and fear about climate change, species extinction, the decimation of the world’s forests, the depleted aquifers, the diminishing topsoil, the fouling of the oceans. What’s driving all this pollution and destruction? Human consumption, right?

I’ve often wondered why the words “sacrifice” and “conservation” have all but disappeared from our cultural conversation. They do feel a bit like old, dead words, I guess, and yet we DO have to conserve, and we WILL have to give up a lot of stuff if the next generation is to stand a chance of inheriting a livable world.

So maybe LESS IS MORE should be the new eco-slogan and political rallying cry. It’s got a sexier ring to it than “sacrifice,” doesn’t it? It’s a flinty and energetic little meme. And it’s really true! Less IS more! Just try getting rid of stuff, and you’ll see.

Just maybe, “less is more” can save the (human) world. Who knows? Worth a try.

Dec 042019
 

I was walking up a hill recently in Tabor Park, near sunset time, toward a bench where I like to sit. I saw that someone was already seated there as I approached, and then the sun got in my eyes.

Normally I look away (right?) when the sun’s in my eyes, but for some reason I chose not to this time. I let the brightness overwhelm my vision. It somehow wasn’t quite bright enough to hurt; it was a magnificent orange-ish, pre-sundown glow.

I attained the top of the hill and I commented to the person on the bunch, whom I hadn’t even really been able to see up to the moment, “Something blinded me just now. Maybe it was you.” 

I meant it, of course, as a joke. 

The person came into focus, a young man, matted hair, clothes just soiled enough to signal to me that he was homeless. In response to my words, he summoned a brave, cringing grin. (Can you picture this?) He nodded sheepishly and said, “All right, sir.” This was his effort to respond with an appropriate spirit to what he (I believe) understood to be an attempt at humor, though I’m sure he really had no idea what on earth I was talking about, or that my nonchalant jest even contained kind of an obscure compliment – the suggestion that he could have been the source of that majestic light. I’m quite sure none of that computed, and in fact, I sensed he was a little frightened, in the way that helpless, hungry, physically weak, needy people will occasionally be intimidated by well-fed, large, confident-looking people who stride through the world with accustomed privilege.

Had it not been for the sun that had obscured my sight, I believe I would have read his body language during my approach, and perceived that he would have preferred to have been left alone. 

After our momentary interaction, the image of his pained expression did haunt me for a dozen steps or so, during which time I had the following sequence of thoughts:

What if I just offered this one man a place to stay for a night? No, I didn’t really want to invite him into my house. But what if I had an ADU in my backyard, where I could occasionally invite homeless people to stay? Oh no, then the word would get out. There’d be a line every night! Maybe I’d eventually have to make my ADU a “certified” homeless shelter, whatever that might involve and … jeez, what a headache. I certainly don’t have time for such a project in my life. 

And so I walked on with a largely untroubled heart. 

That entire thought sequence had taken about seven seconds. 

Dec 042019
 

Here is how I went slightly out of my way recently to accept a small gesture of kindness.

I had just bought a little chocolate fudge cupcake at the cupcake shop next to my bank. A postal worker, toting his sack, bought a cupcake right after I did. I thought he looked harried and hurried.

I ate most of my cupcake as I strolled leisurely out of the shop, heading first to the trash receptacle to deposit my little paper cupcake holder (you know, those things they serve cupcakes in). The mail carrier – who was clearly in a hurry, as I said – was already ahead of me on his way out, but he paused momentarily to hold the door open for me.

So I skipped my little detour to the trash receptacle in order to step through the door he held open, and to thank him. He nodded, and walked quickly away.

I sat down at a little table outside the cupcake shop, finished the final bite or two of my cupcake, wrote down this little account, and then stepped quickly back inside the cupcake shop to throw away my little paper cupcake holder.

Dec 032019
 

I recently picked up a book of essays by Portland, OR writer Wendy Willis, and I was moved to quote her on Facebook:

I grieve over the fact that an entire generation, including me, has been so careless and greedy and addicted to convenience that we have likely doomed the planet and all of its inhabitants to a bleak and catastrophic future. At this point, I am awash in grief that could, and sometimes does, overwhelm all other emotions.” — Wendy Willis

 

In these lines, Willis speaks for me and for, I imagine, many people.

A friend of mine responded in a comment below my post:

This is not one but many generations in the making.”

I replied: “Agreed. Perhaps even millennia in the making. Good point.”

 

Does “millennia” sound like hyperbole? On the one hand, the Industrial Age is only a few hundred years old, but I think the essential human mistake predates technology. I think the collective human heart went badly astray a very long time ago, when the dominant cultures of the world bit down hard on the dream of separation, on the illusion of life as a zero sum gain, on your-loss-is-my-gain, with concepts like land ownership and evil institutions such as slavery. I believe the seeds of catastrophic climate change were sown even during the building of the pyramids.

 

So maybe I can take a Taoist or Zen-like attitude toward the whole thing and accept that this apparently tragic ending to the human experiment was baked in the cake from the start, because there was really no avoiding all of us having the experience of separation, of being individual egos trapped in discrete bags of skin and bones, seeing through just this one pair of eyes, touching the world through only this particular pair of hands, and so on. It’s an extremely compelling illusion and it’s only natural that most of us have fallen for it pretty hard (as have entire societies, including our own), with the exception perhaps of mystics throughout the ages, and maybe the occasional revelatory altered state or serendipitous moment of awakening.

 

I walk in grief every single day. It is no use trying to change that. I am not clinically depressed. I have good moments, even happy ones, but there is a shadow over everything and that shadow is climate change and environmental destruction, and all the attendant ramifications. I also grieve the fact that torture exists and injustice persists, but nothing destroys my heart and cripples my sense of hope like the relentless, furious decimation of our ecosphere and apparently inevitable miseries to come, though perhaps I’ll die before the worst of them hit.

 

Here is a question I was presented with recently:

Is human nature still evolving. If so, how?

 

I think human nature had better be still evolving because it’s our only hope. And I do believe it is evolving, though I’m not sure it’s evolving fast enough to save us.

 

As for what evolution looks like, I believe that the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg offers a clue. When she came, with a group of fellow teenage activists, to speak about climate change recently to the French parliament, right-wing politicians boycotted her presentation and mocked her as “a prophetess in shorts” and the “Joan of Arc of climate change.” Her response:

 

Some people have chosen not to come here today, some have chosen not to listen to us and that is fine, we are after all just children, you don’t have to listen to us. But you do have to listen to the scientists, that is all we ask.”

 

Note the simple, irrefutable clarity of her words. Note the egolessness. Read the story.

 

Incidentally, the scientists are also having a difficult time emotionally.

 

Meanwhile, one very hot day last summer, I was in a dentist’s office, a coffee shop, a FedEx outlet, a bank and a grocery store, all of which had air conditioning, which felt heavenly. I think AC is probably needed at the dentist’s office; they’re doing precision work there and they probably need to be comfortable to perform at their best.

 
But I could do with at least a little less AC in New Seasons and the other places. At least somewhat less. I might be less comfortable, but I could look in the eyes of all the other shoppers (or coffee shop patrons or what-have-you) with the shared understanding and knowledge that we care about the future of the world and we are in the midst of an extraordinary crisis that threatens the future of human civilization (and perhaps the human species) and we will have to give up things if we are to have even a remote chance of heading off the worst consequences of climate change for our children and their children, and we’ll be comforted by the certainty that in our discomfort and fear we are at least not alone and our hearts can grow bigger and softer and more generous as we get more and more real with ourselves and each other about this, yeah? Like every single day, walking within the grief, but not alone.

 

What miracles we enjoy right now! Access to drinkable water everywhere, grocery stores packed with huge arrays of food from all over the world, a convenient medium of exchange (cash) … so many complex systems chugging along constantly that make our lives so convenient. What could conceivably make this way of living sustainable? Probably nothing. We’re on a crash course with disaster, even absent air conditioning. But we have to start somewhere. How do we attune our hearts to the possibility of a sustainable world for our babies … and start putting into place the requirements of that world?

 

What will we need to give up and what adaptations will we have to make, if we’re serious?

Dec 032019
 

I was at East Portland Coffee Roasters café, having a late-night dish of chocolate-peanut butter ice cream and a dark chocolate medallion and reading THE SUN magazine which featured an interview with Bill McKibben and an excerpt from his latest book Falter which described the inexorable changes that are to come as the spaces fit for human habitation on this planet steadily shrink over the decades to come and some days will be so hot in various population centers that just the heat alone will kill people, as it has begun to do already, and the jellyfish will proliferate in the warming oceans, and … well, the café was playing some Spotify station that featured 60s and 70s classic rock and the woman who was staffing the café is only 35 but she was rocking out to “Stairway to Heaven” and “The Weight” and “Can’t You See?” (by Marshall Tucker Band) and “Me and Bobby McGee” (Janis version of course) and “The Chain” (Fleetwood  Mac) and though I was sitting there reading about this crisis we’re all in, this impending horror, this massive change to come, this certainty of food and water scarcity in the world to come, this certainty of something I don’t really want to live to see (and I’m so sorry I didn’t stop it for everyone who’s younger than me), I was simultaneously moving my body back and forth, kind of rocking out in my chair and putting on a harmony to some of the song lyrics playing over the café speaker system, and before I left I had to ask the woman how she knew all this music that was from my time, not hers, and did she really love it? And ohhh she  loves it, she knows all of it, she grew up with it, and we agreed that music is by far our deepest pleasure, better than sex or food.

Dec 032019
 

I was going through a little rough patch emotionally. My friend and I were enumerating all our blessings, so that we would remember and so that I could keep my own little troubles in context. We covered the usual and the most obvious blessings: access to drinkable water all the time, everywhere. Food and shelter. All the amenities of white privilege in modern day America.

 

And then my friend said, “Connection. We’re connected. We have people who know us well, who care about us, whom we can turn to when we’re in trouble. That may be the biggest blessing of all.”

 

I remembered how, the previous night, two friends and I had seen the new Linda Ronstadt documentary at a Portland cinema, and afterward I gave a guy a dollar outside the theater. He asked me what movie I’d just seen and I told him, and then he wanted to talk about Linda Ronstadt. He started naming songs, and he wanted to sing them with me, and we sang a few snatches of song together. My friends were walking away without me up the sidewalk and this man just wanted to hang on to my company as long as he could, sharing old Linda Ronstadt hits. He was so hungry for connection.

Oct 312019
 

I was riding the bus one evening and suddenly a bunch of texts started coming in fast and furious from two different friends – intense and upsetting for completely different reasons.

 

So I was sucked into two simultaneous texting conversations, both of them emotionally fraught, typing with my finger (not using the phone microphone because that wouldn’t have worked well on the crowded, noisy bus), when the woman in the seat in front of me turned around and asked in a distressed, zoned-out way, “Is this stop coming up Grand and Union? I need to get off at Grand and Union.”

 

I had no idea where Grand and Union was. I didn’t even know there was a Union Street in Portland. I muttered, “I think we’re approaching Grand but I don’t know where Union is.”

 

“Because I really need to get to Grand and Union,” the woman repeated, clearly distraught.

 

I continued texting.

 

The woman sitting next to me (a stranger), having witnessed this interchange, took matters into her own hands. “You need to get to Grand and Union?” she asked the disoriented woman in a kind tone.

 

And she proceeded to speak to the bus driver on the confused woman’s behalf. “Excuse me, driver, this woman needs to get to Union and Grand. Where should she get off? Does she have to transfer? What bus should she take?”

 

I was so absorbed in my texting dramas that I was only vaguely aware of a small network of support that had spontaneously coalesced around the bewildered woman. She was being taken care of by people other than me.

 

I felt a little ashamed and guilty for not having tended to her myself. I was sure that the woman sitting beside me, who had initiated the full-on rescue, had quietly judged me for being a self-centered, checked-out clod.

 

But later I realized that that assumption – the assumption I was being judged – was merely a story in my head.

 

The true takeaway from the episode is that there are kind people everywhere, stepping in spontaneously to do all sorts of necessary things.

 

Occasionally, from my ego’s perspective, it feels like they are “covering” for me when I’m indisposed. Actually, kind people are “covering” for me all the time, continually, in all sorts of places, “filling in” in ways I’m utterly unaware of.

Mar 092017
 

Can anybody simplify the situation such that even Trump voters MUST come out of denial?

I saw the unflappable Kellyanne Conway in some youtube newsclip today. In response to the reporter’s question regarding why there was no visible evidence for Trump’s claim that Obama wiretapped him, Conway blandly replies that the president has access to all kinds of information sources that the rest of us don’t, and he knows what he is talking about.

 

I don’t remember what the reporter said next, nor can I find that news clip again. (I tried.) But here is what she or he did not say:

 

“So the president has access to information no one else does, and he is asking Congress to investigate this matter. But he has not disclosed to Congress what he knows or how he knows it. Yet he wants Congress to find it. Is there some extremely complex, national-security-related reason that he needs to send Congress on a scavenger hunt?”

Feb 172017
 

I want to blame the media for being too simplistic, for playing into Trump’s hands.

For example, they (CNN, MSNBC, probably others) keep repeating, like a mantra: How does it make sense for Trump to say the leaks are real but the reporting is fake? How can that possibly make any sense?

 

Well, it makes obvious sense, and Trump knows it in a feral, instinctive way, as do his supporters, though neither he nor they might have the clarity of mind to articulate it. The sense is simply this: The leaks did happen, but the reporting about their significance – and possibly even their content — is misleading and distorted. The INTERPRETATION that the media has overlaid on the leaks is “fake.”

 

Now, of course, if the media were simply to acknowledge this IMPLICIT argument (and trust me, it IS implicit), they would have an easy comeback with “But we are simply reporting what the leaks CONTAIN. We are reporting them LITERALLY. Interpretation is minimal or NONEXISTENT. We are simply reporting the information we are receiving via White House and other government sources, as literally as we can without divulging our specific anonymous sources.”

 

And yet, if the media tried to do this – that is, both articulate AND address Trump’s implicit argument – an argument that Trump himself has not been able (or willing?) to state plainly – that would be asking A LOT of the news consumer, a lot of thinking, a lot of attention and proactive use of brain power to follow the nuances of this situation.

 

And our culture is not conditioned to use its brains. This is not people’s fault. People are not stupid, but we are neither taught nor encouraged to USE OUR BRAINS in this society. This has actually been a problem as long I’ve lived at least, but it’s gotten so much worse. And calling people stupid, of course, only adds to the problem.

 

So I don’t know what to do, or what the media should do. But it freaks me when intelligent mainstream media seem to deliberately ignore the obvious. I feel they are unwittingly PROVING TRUMP’S POINT when they do that. They are reporting the news as it occurred – in this case, the news being Trump’s gibberish at his press conference about real leaks and fake news – but giving it a not-altogether-honest slant. And I believe Trumplandia dimly perceives this, and it keeps them in Trump’s corner.

 

I think Trump himself is a lizard brain, connecting with other lizard brains. When he calls himself not a bad guy, don’t you feel something? Like the guy really wants to be loved? Let’s not underestimate the power of that either. That tiny bit of authenticity is something people feel, totally bypassing their rusty critical thinking facilities.

Jan 272017
 

This essay is several weeks old now. I wrote it in late November. It still feels relevant to me, a week into the Trump presidency.

 

10 Responses to a Traumatic Election

#1 Devastation

For days after the election, I am gutted. I feel small and weak and ignorant.

I don’t know where the pressure points are in “the system.” I don’t know how to help make things better. I don’t know if there’s any realistic hope for human existence on planet Earth, my country’s democracy, the economy, civil society, anything.

Hell, I don’t even know if I can take care of myself.

 

#2 Spooky Fatigue

Reading a piece in the New Yorker magazine that featured 16 esteemed writers’ commentary on the election, I was suddenly overwhelmed with fatigue and went back to bed.

Waking again an hour or so later. I flashed on an eidetic image of a rat’s eye, or maybe a squirrel’s eye, or maybe a brown rabbit’s eye, twitching, taut with tension, every nerve on maximum alert.

A friend had recently said that Brexit, Marine LaPen, and various emerging strains of nativism and fascism in Europe have been strengthened immeasurably by Trump’s ascendance in the U.S. I’m sure he’s right, but it’s not just the human realm at the effect of this Dark Wave. Even the animal kingdom feels it, this bedrock-level tremor we’re currently calling “Trump.”

 

#3 Buddha-like Equanimity

I can’t tell if people who are calmer than me are wiser or just less informed. Maybe both.

I was musing with a friend about how, throughout history, when humans have worried about large-scale catastrophes, they might have feared war, or drought, or famine. Today we not only worry about those things, but also about the extinction of the human species from anthropogenic climate change or even nuclear war (see: General Michael Flynn, national security advisor).

I speculated that perhaps, after our species evolves into a more refined and intelligent life form, they’ll encounter ever-bigger threats, like maybe a rupture in the very fabric of space-time.

My friend, whose wife is about to give birth to their second child in a week or two, nodded thoughtfully. “And that will be okay too,” he said.

 

#4 Stark Horrified Amazement

I don’t know if we will survive this.

Two days before Thanksgiving, President-elect Trump sat down with the New York Times editorial board and said he was “having an open mind” about the Paris climate accords.

The next day I read that Trump intends to curtail funding to NASA’s climate change research division because he deems it “politicized.” (And just to add a little icing to Wednesday’s cake, he’s appointing a school-privatization hardliner as his Secretary of Education.)

It really is incredible how abruptly EVERYTHING most people I know (including myself) care about is threatened. Here is an incomplete, rambling list:

  • public schools
  • the world economy
  • Medicare
  • the existence of NATO (never dreamed I’d worry about THAT!)
  • the Geneva Conventions
  • immigrants’ rights
  • abortion rights
  • organized labor
  • affordable health insurance
  • a U.S. Supreme Court that isn’t dominated by hardline right-wingers
  • gun control
  • freedom of the press
  • the natural environment
  • the livability of the planet

 

In the immediate aftermath of the election, Portland Oregon’s Willamette Weekly rated, on a scale of 1 to 5, over two dozen things we have to worry about in the face of a Trump administration, with a 5 signifying the highest likelihood that our worries will come true. For example, the fear that the U.S. Department of Justice will try to re-criminalize pot in Oregon only got a 1. The concern that Trump will reverse efforts to combat climate change got a 5.

I know it’s a mark of privilege to worry about the end of the world, when so many people are facing so much more immediate pain. Still, I am just gobsmack stunned that everything “we” – people like me – were dreaming of is on the chopping block.

What is the “other side” dreaming of, I wonder?

(I recently asked a cousin of mine why he voted for Trump and he replied, “Because change is good, I like surprises, and I’m not crazy about all the abortions.” But somehow that doesn’t enlighten me much.)

 

#5 Bitter Fury

Protesters in Portland broke local business windows.

At a meeting of Portland climate change activists, a woman proclaimed, “Y’all are too nice. That won’t do diddly squat. This is a right-wing coup! We have to take to the streets!”

A friend fumed on the phone, “I will NOT normalize the American Hitler!”

A stranger on the street asked me for directions. We wound up walking a little together, and discussing the election. She said that Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie were like mafia dons, and she was sure it was Giuliani who had leaked the information about Hillary’s emails on Anthony Weiner’s computer to the FBI, which resulted in Comey’s last-minute letter to Congress, which may have swung the election.

I said that sounded unlikely, and that more logically the leak would have gone the other way, from the FBI to Giuliani.

She said, “Well, I think Giuliani leaked it. Of course Russia was involved too.”

We parted ways.

I believe Russia hacked the emails that were released via wikileaks. I think it’s unlikely that Russia hacked the actual voting machines or somehow instigated the kerfuffle with Weiner’s computer. What I know for certain is that sputtering rage and complex paranoid speculations fill me with toxic dread.

 

#6 Nonviolent Activism

My friend Adam thinks it’s a “coin flip” as to whether we now become a fascist country.

Nonetheless, he points out that “the more chaos and fear there is, the easier it is to move people to the darkness. Nonviolence and positivity are an invitation back to the light.”

He acknowledges that seriously nonviolent resistance is not easy. It requires discipline, maybe even training. And it’s hard to get millions of people to buy into it. But it’s the only kind of activism that does not increase Trump’s power. Engaging with hatred and blame won’t help anything. Like Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.”

I mentioned to Adam something I’d read about on facebook. A woman was jogging the day after the election and some guys shouted at her, “Who owns your pussy now?”

Adam responded wearily, “There’s a lot of angry, broken people in this world. People who would say such things, who would taunt … it’s just brokenness.”

 

#7 Retrospective Reflections on My Candidate

I like Hillary Clinton a lot. Maybe I’m just a sucker for an agile mind and a precise vocabulary. I’m also in awe of her resilience.

But there is a price to be paid for being so tough. Toughness makes your nerve endings a bit brittle. You lose some sensitivity.

Barack Obama, I have long felt, brought wisdom as well as intelligence to the presidency. I never quite felt that Hillary had that quality. While infinitely preferable to Trump, she is probably not an inspired leader for our times either, though the platform she ran on was terrific.

She didn’t do much campaigning in the late weeks of summer. Rather, she attended many small fundraisers, and reportedly told donors, probably with a smile, “I’m all that’s standing between you and the apocalypse.” Now that may have been true (we’ll find out) but let’s face it, that was a message of fear if ever there was one. An invocation of raw fear, worthy of a dictator. Employing terror to get people to open their wallets. It takes a special kind of person to do that.

Then when she described half of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” I never bought the story that it was an offhand mistake. She knew the press was there; she is way too savvy to have imagined it wouldn’t make waves. I believe her calculation was that it would reify certain cultural divisions in our country which would ultimately redound to her electoral benefit. It was an unwise move.

She also blew what was probably the most important moment of the second debate with Trump, the town hall debate where he followed her around the stage, the debate that took place shortly after the infamous “Hollywood Access tape” became public. Hillary won it hands down of course by every rational measure: she was far more cogent, informed, poised.

But this is the era of the extremely-low-information voter, the voter to whom civil discourse and policy positions are mere background noise, the voter who just decides “from the gut.” So when the final questioner asked both Clinton and Trump to say something nice about each other, that may have been the critical moment.

Hillary could not answer authentically. She insincerely praised Trump’s children. Trump could answer authentically; he expressed genuine admiration for Hillary’s toughness and resilience. Never mind that this contradicted his repeated charge that she “lacked stamina” – it was an honest moment, and I believe that many millions of low-information voters perceived it as such, and in their “guts” it may have even won the debate for him.

But what else could Hillary have said? What could she possibly respect about Trump? He’s a walking caricature of all things vile. Maybe she could have dug deep though – if she were wise – and come up with something true. Maybe something like: “I admire how powerfully Donald connects in an emotional way with his supporters. I connect well too when I talk to people one on one, but as everyone knows, I struggle a bit on the stump. Donald has tremendous ability to move large crowds; it’s a great talent. He is very charismatic.”

Could she have gotten away with such frankness, such vulnerability? I think so. It might have been a remarkable moment of grace. It could have won her tons of votes. Who knows? It certainly would have garnered a lot of attention in the modern media environment.

Then again, speaking of graceful moments, her concession speech, in which she dignifiedly reassured the nation of the peaceful transfer of power and the sustaining order of things in our democracy, was poignantly brave and patriotic.

But a few days later, she publicly blamed FBI Director James Comey for her election loss. I submit that this was not high-minded leadership. Identifying a scapegoat did nothing to ease the crushed hearts of her supporters. I believe it merely reinforced feelings of rage and helplessness and victimhood. If Hillary were a wise leader, she might have said something along the lines of: “We are at an historic crossroads … there are many reasons why we lost this election … the onus is on me … this is a painful moment for us all … but now it is up to you not to lose heart, to keep sight of our values …” and so on. She could have spoken with the interests of the people foremost in her mind, rather than focusing blame on an individual.

 

#8 Reflections on Trump

Let’s admit it. There would have been a nationwide Trump ridicule-fest had he lost. We would have danced on his grave. We would have gorged on gloating. Personally, I couldn’t wait to see the son of a bitch humiliated.

It would not have been wise or mature, but I would have “given in to it.”

Instead, as it is, I’m praying for him every day, praying that he should find his heart, that he should awaken to peace and compassion. At first I had some resistance to making that prayer, because after all, why does Trump, of all people, deserve peace of heart, the most precious thing there is? (More on that later.)

I speculated to a friend, the one who called Trump the American Hitler, that he’s a wounded person.

She snapped: “He’s not wounded! He’s disconnected from his soul!”

“So that’s not a wound?” I replied.

She said, “There are people who take pleasure in killing others. He is one of them.”

That I don’t know, though Trump does have a long, storied record of cheating, hurting, and demeaning people, apparently without remorse.

Yet, post-election, even his arch-foe Bill Maher had to give him credit. Maher said something like, “Trump certainly did it his way. If anyone has the right to sing the song ‘My Way,’ Trump does.”

I give Trump credit too. He really sparked a movement. He did it largely by appealing to people’s basest instincts, elevating ignorance, lying incessantly, inciting fear, and fomenting violent resentment. He demonstrated a certain feral astuteness: He did not overestimate the American people like the liberals did.

(For the record, I do not have a grand explanation for What Happened. Michael Moore’s analysis of working class people throughout the Rust Belt feeling forgotten and aggrieved makes sense to me. So does a friend’s observation about how all Hillary’s celebrity surrogates were hip and beautiful, and how economically marginalized people with low self-esteem might have felt alienated and “left out” by that. I know people generally act –and vote — from their needs and hurts. I’m sure bigotry and racism were in the mix too.)

But for all his pettiness and meanness, Trump does not seem to possess the smug sadism of a Stalin, the maniacal vendetta of a Hitler, or even the steely hatefulness of a Mobutu or Pinochet.

After Trump’s pre-Thanksgiving sit-down with the New York Times, columnist Frank Bruni wrote an op-ed entitled “Donald Trump’s Demand for Love.” Bruni described how, before the meeting, Trump touched his arm, looked him in the eye, and stated, “I’m going to get you to write some good stuff about me.” Bruni, openly gay and very liberal, had been nothing but excoriating of Trump for over a year.

Bruni went on to write: “It’s entirely possible. I keep an open mind. But I’m decided on this much: Winning the most powerful office in the world did nothing to diminish [Trump’s] epic ache for adoration or outsize need to tell everyone how much he deserves it.”

I trust Bruni’s insight. It’s consistent with what we’ve all seen. Clearly, Trump has a conspicuous and insatiable desire to be loved and adored.

And what if we fed that desire? What if, instead of hating Trump, we tried to love him?

Does the very thought make you want to throw up?

Me too.

But I think that’s part of the problem.

I think Trump is kind of a sponge. He absorbs what gets thrown at him and then secretes it back out.

I don’t expect to be able to conjure love for the man simply by virtue of deciding that it may a good thing to do. But I will recognize that it’s probably the sanest response, and maybe, ultimately, the only hopeful one.

(Thinking of Hillary again: Was she harder to love than Trump?! Even her supporters, at times, seemed to imagine that she was so tough she didn’t need love. Talk about a fatally flawed candidate!)

 

#9 Thoughts on What to Do, Where to Stand

Hard times are coming.

We have not hit bottom yet, not even close. Who knows what “bottom” will even look like? It’s going to require us to step up and be bigger in ways we can hardly imagine, especially those of us who’ve lived a life of relative stability and comfort for decades.

Maybe if millions of us commit to doing at least just a little bit more than we’ve been doing thus far to create and sustain the world we want – whether “a little bit more” looks like political activism, or civic involvement, or volunteerism, or civil disobedience, or simply remembering to speak from our deepest hearts more often – maybe this will, cumulatively, provide some counterbalance to the forces of “Trumpism.” Maybe it will even be enough to save our country, our planet, ourselves, and each other.

Of course, it may not be enough. The challenges ahead are overwhelming. But as Mahatma Gandhi stated, “Whatever you do may seem insignificant to you, but it is most important that you do it.”

Attending a community meeting may seem downright quaint in the face of a political juggernaut that stacks the federal judiciary, undoes every environmental regulation in effect since the 1960s, disenfranchises millions of voters, slashes social services, and generates chaos. It may feel like shooting peas against a fortress wall. (Or barely even that.) But I think we have to be humble. Our only hope is each other. And we have to be realistic about what each of us can practically do, or is willing to do.

At the very least, it soothes the soul to join together with other bewildered, devastated people and make some consistent effort.

For starters, I will work with my local climate change group, 350PDX, and volunteer as an overnight host at a local homeless shelter at least a few times a year.

And I will at least remember – even if I don’t always live – my deepest values. This means remembering that blaming is useless. It means remembering that – as the principles of nonviolent communication state – everything everyone does or says is in service of their needs (one way or another) and we all have the same needs. Even those bastards coming into power. Oh – and I’ll quit name calling too. Really.

I’ll also try not to be so reactive any time I feel slighted or insulted, which isn’t easy. I’m sure I’ll fail often. But I’ll do my best.

I’ll keep my heart as open as I can. I’ll speak the truth as I see it. I’ll be honest with myself.

I seriously think that these coming times will require us all to be spiritual warriors.

Then again, if being a warrior means – as I heard or read somewhere – being impeccable, I won’t qualify. But I don’t like the sound of “spiritual soldier” so … maybe spiritual striver. I can strive every day to act and speak consistently with my heart’s best wisdom. That much I can do.

 

#10 Message of Peace

 

I got the message while I was out walking one night recently:

Despite my weaknesses, my preoccupation with myself, and all the ways I’ve let myself and others down – and despite the state of the world, and the gathering darkness ahead — I deserve pure shining peace in my heart.

And so do you. So does everyone. Even Donald Trump.

We’re all broken into pieces. We’re all reaching out from a fractured place. To the extent we find peace, we behave sanely.

I’m thinking of the person who left the climate change meeting, because it wasn’t angry enough for her. I’m thinking of all the people who feel that their activism requires anger.

I’m not going to argue against anger that arises naturally. I think it’s a fundamental emotion.

But don’t feel you should be angry even when you’re not. Don’t feel you have to be militant and oppositional in a blaming way. It may just be your delusional mind’s way of telling you that you don’t deserve peace.

You don’t have to hit back in anger against injustice before you can have peace in your heart.

You may feel like you have no right to peace, given what’s coming, given the crimes being committed, and all the people who are hurting. Given your own shortcomings and “sins.”

But you do deserve it, now. You really do. We all do. Do you really doubt that?

Dec 142015
 

The Republican Party is saving the world!

I know it sounds ridiculous but hear me out.

The climate agreement reached in Paris does not contain any mandates for specific emissions reductions by any country. Everything is voluntary.

And we have our Republican Party to thank for that!

No international climate accord would have much meaning if the United States – historically the world’s biggest polluter, and still one of the biggest – was not a party to it. But by U.S. law, treaties have to be ratified by Congress. And if emissions reductions were REQUIRED by the agreement, then it would be a TREATY. With Republicans controlling both houses, a climate treaty would be dead on arrival.

A climate AGREEMENT, however, is not.

In order to include the United States, there could be no “climate treaty.” That was a given from the start. An agreement such as the one reached in Paris, however, does not require Congressional approval.

And perhaps an agreement right now is better than a treaty. Here’s why.

If, hypothetically, we could effect a treaty that stipulated specific emissions reductions – particularly for the biggest polluters like us and China and India – then, once we met those targets, it would be torturously difficult, politically, to go further than those targets. There would be enormous inertia at the point when we met our initial goals, especially if vested interests were continuing to dispute their necessity.

And if specific targets had been included as requirements within the Paris agreement, it is certain that at this point in time – with where the collective will and consensus (of the most powerful nations) is today — those targets would have been woefully inadequate to the scale of the crisis. (Note that if all the countries hold just to the commitments they made in Paris, temperatures will still be on a course to rise over 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century – a complete disaster for the human race!!)

Therefore, I say, much better to have created a framework, a mechanism for reducing emissions and revising targets as we go IN RESPONSE TO THE SCIENCE (and to the tangible developments of the global warming crisis). And that is a huge part of what this agreement has accomplished, with its brilliant idea of forging consensual standards of measurement and verification, and its ongoing international report-and-review protocol.

Now if some Republican dipshit does get elected president, chances are the U.S. might bow out of the voluntary reporting protocol. But you know … I mean … talk about peer pressure! If there is such a thing as international peer pressure, THAT is what this agreement provides (among other things).

And I’m stoked. I think it’s a more hopeful outcome than a bunch of inadequate targets.

So again I say, Hey, maybe the Republicans are saving the world. Unintentionally, but still.

Jul 212015
 

I’m psyched about the Iran peace deal.

Maybe you’re not. I can accept that. Reasonable minds may disagree.

I’ve been reading about the particulars. Maybe you have too. Is the verification regime going to be effective? Will the imminent lifting of the arms embargo (from Russia and China) encourage Iran to project its power even more aggressively throughout the region, promoting terrorist groups like Hezbollah?

These are complicated questions. But for my purposes here, I don’t want to get into the weeds, and for that I hope I may be forgiven.

What I’m quibbling with today is a meme, not a contract provision. That meme was emblemized by a cartoon I saw featured recently on realclearpolitics.com. The cartoon depicts an impossibly stick-skinny, big-eared, insubstantial-looking President Obama shaking hands with a much larger, more imposing bearded ayatollah in a robe. Obama is saying, “We will trust you.” The ayatollah is saying, “Death to America.”

I’ll come back to this in a second.

The Meaning of “Ignorant”

When I was 15 I had a job busing tables and washing dishes at a restaurant in South Florida. One of the cooks, Chuck, was 29 years old, though he could easily have passed for 45. His face and demeanor were ravaged by hard living, though he occasionally showed a lively spirit, such as when he used the cook’s microphone (which was there so that cooks could briskly announce “Order up, Kathy!”) to serenade the restaurant with country ballads like “Since I Met You Baby.” He sang well actually.

I used to get on Chuck’s nerves in various ways which I won’t go into here. Often he’d lash out and call me dumb, which didn’t faze me. I knew I had problems but I was confident that stupidity wasn’t one of them.

One late night after our shift ended, Chuck, in a détente mood, invited me to come by his place to share a beer or a joint or something. He lived in some cruddy apartment in a sketchy section of Dania, FL, and as we sat across from each other at his little kitchen table he looked at me earnestly and apologized for calling me dumb all the time. He said, “I know you’re a smart kid, but you’re ignorant!”

I retorted, “Ignorant of what? I may know some things you don’t. I’m sure you know lots of things I don’t. So? Everybody’s ignorant of something.”

Chuck exhaustedly shook his head, the features in that worn face of his straining as he pulled together his thoughts. “Well, that’s not what I mean. To me, ignorant is when you have a brain but you don’t use it.

I’m pretty sure I never visited with Chuck again and I certainly have no idea what became of him. If he’s alive today, he’s only in his early seventies, but somehow I doubt he’s still with us, poor Chuck. At the time, though I never consciously thought about it, I implicitly understood the elemental difference between our respective situations. Regardless of whatever troubles I had, I knew I’d go on to college, and I would eventually have the opportunity to choose my destiny. Chuck, on the other hand, would never attain anything much better than that greasy cook’s job. For me, the restaurant was a temporary way station; for him it was his station in life.

Nonetheless, when he pronounced his definition of ignorance, it changed my life forever. I recognized that in his mildly inebriated, coarse, and primitive way, he was really trying to tell me something.

And I got it. Simply having a good brain isn’t enough—you have to exercise it.

In a nutshell, that’s how I feel about my country. Hundreds of millions of people with plenty of native intelligence to whom it simply never occurs to use their brains. Because if most Americans used their brains, that cartoon I mentioned earlier—and the meme it expresses—would be extremely marginal stuff, not mainstream.

That Meme

Do you know what a meme is? I won’t hold you as ignorant if you don’t, but “meme” is an important word. A meme is a sort of basic idea, or image, or thought, or way of looking at things, which catches hold in a culture.

Urbandictionary.com describes a meme as “a virus of the mind especially contagious to children and the impressionable.” Urbandictionary.com also offers the following definition:

an idea, belief or belief system, or pattern of behavior that spreads throughout a culture …

Make sense?

The meme that’s really bugging me at the moment is the following thought progression:

Obama is a weak leader who can be taken advantage of by “tougher” heads of state around the world. In the case of Iran, the rulers are ruthless and conniving and they have hoodwinked Obama by playing on his naïve desire to “trust” them. Thus the so-called peace deal is a triumph of evil cunning over Obama’s lack of moral courage.

Okay. Set aside the reality that Obama didn’t go in there and negotiate on his own. He didn’t sit down mano a mano with some unscrupulous but charming mullah and get fleeced. The United States was represented by an extensive negotiating team of seasoned State Department diplomats, as well as nuclear experts.

Set aside the fact that on our side of the table we also had high-ranking officials from Britain, Germany, France, China, and Russia. (Is Putin a wimp too?)

Forget all that for the moment and let’s just look critically for a second at this whole issue of “trust.”

Minimal Historical Memory

Rule 1 for using your brain: Be reasonably informed about things if you’re going to profess an opinion about them.

It is an established, well-documented fact that our CIA engineered a coup of Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953, and reinstalled the western-friendly but domestically brutal Shah (who was eventually overthrown in 1979 by the Islamic fundamentalist minions of the Ayatollah Khomeni). True, that was over 60 years ago, but maybe, just maybe, there remain some hard feelings in the collective Iranian psyche … perhaps even some distrust of the U.S.

I’m no Mideast scholar but I am aware of this historical fact and I believe all Americans should be. I’m a realist too though. I reluctantly accept that Americans generally don’t know much history. As a culture, we are very “Zen,” very present-moment.

HOWEVER … we don’t need to go all the way back to 1953 for a reasonable, albeit minimal, historical perspective. Nearly all adult Americans are old enough to remember the lead-up to our 2003 Iraq war, and to remember – during that time period – President George W. Bush’s (in)famous characterization of Iran as one of the three “axes of evil” in the world (along with Iraq and North Korea).

So when we hear Iranian clerics describe America as “the great Satan” and so on, is it really so different?

Actually, it is very different. Because our crazy words, unlike theirs (insofar as they pertain to the U.S.), have been backed by breathtakingly crazy actions.

Getting the Questions Right

Rule 2 for using your brain: Consider – and, whenever possible, ask — the obvious questions. Even when no one else—including, perhaps, the entire U.S. press corps– is asking them. Especially when no one else is asking them.

Never assume that a question is unimportant or not legitimate just because no one else is voicing it.

Here’s another historical tidbit that I don’t expect – though could reasonably wish – Americans to recall: Iran was vehemently and vociferously opposed to our 2003 invasion of Iraq. They issued multiple apocalyptic condemnations of the whole idea. Yet I cannot recall anyone in our press asking – much less explaining or speculating – why Iran was so opposed.

More history: At their historic 1972 meeting, noting that the U.S. and China had a common interest in curbing Soviet expansionism, President Richard Nixon allegedly quoted an ancient proverb to Chairman Mao: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Apparently Iran wasn’t feeling that logic in late 2002 and early 2003. Though they’d been at war off and on with Iraq for decades, and though the Shia-Sunni blood hatred ran bone deep with their neighboring state, Iran did not deem it good news that America was about to shock and awe Baghdad. Did anybody wonder why not?

Maybe Iran’s leadership could see the inevitable result of our invasion—a power vacuum and a chaos that would pose a far greater threat to them than even Saddam Hussein. And looking at it from today’s perspective, I imagine they would prefer living next to Saddam rather than ISIL.

Or maybe they simply did not trust the United States at all. They knew Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11. So what was the American government’s true motive for this “pre-emptive” war? And would Iran, Iraq’s neighboring “axis of evil,” be next?

Circling Back to the “Trust” Meme

 The fact is: America can, and has, posed an existential threat to Iran. Iran cannot, and has not, posed an existential threat to the USA.

We have wreaked havoc on their country with the 1953 coup, the 2003 Iraq War, and our heavy military support of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. (What, you didn’t know? don’t remember? It was no secret.)

Iran has taken American hostages, said atrocious things, armed the Shiite rebels in Yemen, and sponsored terrorism in the region.

But of our two countries, who is actually a larger threat to whom? And for whom would trust constitute a greater risk?

Which country’s actions, towards the other, have been more reckless, violent, insidious, undermining, and ruthless?

Which country can more rationally view the other as a big evil monster that cannot be trusted?

Which country “projects its power” in the Middle East more extensively, overall?

I know what my own answers are to the above questions, though again, I suppose reasonable minds may disagree. Nonetheless:

Rule Number 3 for Using Your Brain: Don’t settle in with familiar, comfortable memes. Question memes. Question frames. The Iran deal has largely been framed in terms of whether, given Iran’s historical record, they are worthy of trust. Is that a proper frame? Should that be the primary frame?

Rule Number 4 for Using Your Brain: Draw connections for yourself.

For example, I drew a connection between our invasion of Iraq and the subsequent Iranian election of Mahmoud Ahmedinajad, arguably the most toxic Middle East leader so far this century (not counting ISIL or Quaida leadership). I also drew a connection between President Obama’s conciliatory language toward Iran in Cairo and the subsequent Iranian election of Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate. Maybe those connections are imaginary; maybe they don’t truly reflect the political evolution of Iran. Maybe there hasn’t even really been any political evolution in Iran (as many would argue) since the clerics (ayatollahs) have still been in control all along.

But at least I’m using my brain, right? Thinking about these things. Not waiting for the blinkered mainstream punditry to interpret everything. Not keeping my brain on hold until somebody tells me what to think.

Some Memes Are Good

There are plenty of memes I agree with. One is The Iraq War was a monstrously bad idea. That’s a pretty powerful meme, and you know it’s really taken hold when even Jeb Bush can’t resist it anymore.

In fact, lots of great memes out there are gaining steam. Marriage equality is one. Rape, in any form, is morally atrocious and completely intolerable in a civilized society. That’s another healthy meme, I think.

Then again, some common memes are highly questionable. The United States is the world’s great moral force is one of those, in my opinion. I love my country and I’m grateful to live here; nonetheless I would dispute that meme. Christianity is what’s normal is another. No offense, Christian friends. I just don’t think any particular religion should be equated with normalcy in an open secular society, even if the majority of that society’s citizens adhere to that faith. Taxes are bad is, to my mind, a braindead meme. It shuts off thought.

In my personal life, I live by certain memes, many of which are questionable. Life is about pursuing and realizing my desires. That one guides me most of the time, and I scarcely even notice it. But if I use my brain, at least I know why I do what I do, and why I think as I think.

I believe that if our country—in the sense of the body politic—used its brains—that is, applied critical reflective thinking as a matter of course, as a habit, as a reflex—we’d have a saner national dialogue, a saner foreign policy, and a saner domestic situation.

So that’s all I have to say about that. Use your brains, America. It’s fun.

 

Jul 152015
 

Just a little over a week ago, for the first time in over 35 years, I turned on an air conditioner in my home.

I have lived in lots of different places since I moved west in 1979, and one thing all my homes had in common was no air conditioning. Then about ten days ago my landlord came by this house and showed me something. Behind some shuttered panels—an air conditioner! WOO HOO!

Having spent my teens in Florida, I normally do fine with heat. But several 90-degree-plus days had turned my Portland home into a sauna. I could scarcely think straight enough to work. A little air conditioning gave me my life back.

Then one day last week I decided to go to a beach. And the thought occurred to me: How nice it would be to arrive home later to, say, 73 degrees as opposed to 86. So I left the a/c on. I spent hours away from home, while that little guy was tooling away.

I don’t feel guilty. But it was wrong and I won’t do it again.

At the time—that is, when I set out from my house for the beach—I was thinking of the literary event I had attended the previous night at the Old Church in southwest Portland, and the three HUGE air conditioning units jutting out from the back of the building, which kept the spacious chapel cool. I was also thinking of the guy I’d chatted with after the event who told me about his old two-story home in Southern CA, thinking of the way he chuckled as he recalled that when he turned on his air conditioners (yes, plural) in that house “the neighborhood would go dark.” I also had in mind how all the grocery stores and restaurants in town feel positively arctic when you walk into them, despite the heat. (I think that’s known as “convention weather”—overly robust a/c). And I was thinking about how infinitesimally miniscule an impact my little home consumption would make in the scheme of things.

But as I was driving to the beach, my error became clear. Multiply this “miniscule” impact by hundreds of millions of individuals who feel similarly entitled to maximum comfort and convenience and we get early planet death (or maybe just early human species death).

Conservation. Sacrifice. Why are these words so absent from the cultural conversation these days when we talk about climate change?

Most people I know make it a point to vote in elections. They say, It’s not much, but it’s the only vote we have. It’s important to participate in the democratic process.

So why don’t we feel similarly about conservation? That too is a vote (just like how we spend our money is a vote).

I’m still addicted to my convenience. I still will use my a/c if I need it to be comfortable and fully functional in my home, and when the electric fans are simply helpless against the heat wave onslaught. But I will never again leave the a/c on when I’m gone. I’ll sweat a little sometimes, when I first get home. This is really not much of a sacrifice.

Am I setting a reasonable standard of allowable convenience for myself? It’s actually probably still not sustainable on a mass scale. But I guess everybody has to decide for themselves what’s reasonable (so long as the structures-that-be still afford us that prerogative, which in and of itself is a shocking first-world privilege when you think about it).

It feels obscenely luxurious even to be given such a choice, yet I wonder: how many more years of planetary health could we conceivably buy if we simply relinquished maximum convenience?

I feel certain of this much: If we don’t do this (especially those of us who identify as “liberal” and/or “environmentally conscious”), then we do not show the politicians that we’re serious about climate change. It’s one thing to “support” stricter emissions standards for industrial polluters or to “favor” renewable sources of energy. It takes no effort to have a “position.”

But if enough people – a critical mass of people – started sending the message through their actions (i.e. markedly reduced energy consumption) that we feel the urgency of mitigating climate change, how powerful could that possibly be? Might “the great gray they” – the politicians, the leaders of industry – be compelled to respond with similar urgency?

“But it’s them, they say
The great gray ‘They’
But who are they
But us and me
And you too?”

–Daevid Allen

 

 

Mar 172015
 

I recently read THE LACUNA by Barbara Kingsolver. I wouldn’t call it her best novel. But one thing I was struck by–her description of the devoted, we’re-all-in-this-together, luxury-sacrificing, almost ascetic zeitgeist in America during WW II. People were literally giving up things like doorknobs and hairpins so that the raw materials could be devoted to the war effort…. I contrast that with the lackadaisical attitude of even progressive, environmentally hip Americans today about climate change. Is anyone even asking the question, “What would I be willing to sacrifice to save the planet for the next generation??” Bill Maher wisecracked recently–and it seemed he wasn’t even kidding–that he wasn’t even sure he could give up his television remote and go back to standing up and walking over to the TV when he wants to change the channel.
But I mean, really, would it be such a sacrifice to be a radically conservation-minded people, as in using both sides of every scrap of paper, giving up electricity for an hour or more a day (perhaps a self-selected hour) etc.? Citizens were shamed during WW II if they were seen as indulging in the merest self-gratification (like a hairpin) that could detract from the war effort. There is no analogue to that now. Conspicuous consumption remains a sign of status for the most part. What would it take to shift our collective consciousness–I mean, especially those of us that live a relatively comfortable life compared to the vast majority of the world’s population?? It will take a global mind revolution and international cooperation on an unprecedented scale to ward off unthinkable disaster at this point, but I think it has to start here probably, in America, where most of us have so many more choices than the other major polluters in the world.

Feb 092015
 

Wouldn’t it be nice if some famous person—some extremely famous and successful person—an actor or musician at the very top of their field—famous for not only their artistry but also their style, their poise, their savoir faire, their beauty, their perfect-looking mate (or mates), their access to the very best of everything in this dazzling buffet of a world—were to confess to some interviewer on national TV that their life was utterly empty, bereft, devoid of meaning; that she or he was bored of sex, bored of material gratifications, emotionally bankrupt, dead to pleasure, dead to any sense of hope; and the only thing she or he really had left, the only remaining currency of value to her or him, was the undiminished rabid envy of millions and millions of strangers?

And now, she or he would relinquish even this, just so that “kids out there should know, and it might help them get their heads straight about what fame is.”

I think there must be many actors and rock stars who subsist on the thin spiritual gruel of adulation and envy. They don’t start out that way, but I imagine that Big Success gradually strips them of all else.

I have at times bought into the myth that “You’re nobody if you’re not famous.” But I think it’s probably the other way around: Fame inevitably costs you a piece of your soul. The more famous you are, the more of your soul you stand to lose.

Though that wouldn’t necessarily be true in all cases, would it? Are there any truly content, well-adjusted super famous people out there, or are some of the more skilled deceivers among them just fooling us?