Sunday, May 1, 2016

May 1975 - Diary of a fourth-grader


Mom's poly sci notebook from college, Penn State circa 1960, repurposed
I was clearing out some old boxes.  Getting rid of stuff whose sentimental value had leached slowly away.  Ribbons from the Huntingdon County fair, 1979-80, my old elementary school bookbag, now crumpled and petrified - (There was an odd moment in the mid-70s when the old cloth and leather rucksacks of our parents generation disappeared, and it would take a few years for nylon backpacks to replace them.  So we carried our books to school in a drawstring bag with the school’s mascot upon it.  Now that I’m throwing the bag away, I may never think of it again . . . ); a collapsible binoculars that I thought was pretty cool back when; college arts mags that I wasn’t in; Mad Magazines from the 70’s, and so on.

Other things go back in the box to keep until the rest of their sentimental value leaches away.  A stack of letters from my first girlfriend, when I was 15 and we lived an insurmountable hundred miles apart; drawings and writings; letters from other friends and later girlfriends; old photography marred by a poor mastery of the darkroom. 

And a random collection of journals and notebooks.  In one of my first attempts - or at least earliest surviving - I kept a journal for the month of May in 1975 – when I was ten – and though it has nothing much to say about my inner states – it’s an odd glance into the habits of daily life that I would otherwise have no consistent recollection of.  Here is a trio of entries from this 4th-grader, of 41 years ago (misspellings and all):


Thursday, May 1, 1975
I got up late at about 7:45.  We traded trapping cards.  I had 5 – now I have 21.  In Library I got Cave 4 and Bone People.  Bryan Carnathon ate 25 cups of cranberry sauce at lunch.  In reading I only have one story left until I’m done.  I played kickball at recess.  By then the rain had stopped.  After school I started Dad’s birthday present.  It’s a soap carving.  Then I went downstairs and built a tower of blocks.  Right now I think my sister is getting sick.  Right now she has diaria.  So Christy is sleeping with me. 
 Friday, May 2, 1975
I got up in the morning at 6:00. I got trapped to 22.  I got 100 on a paper in Social Studys.  I played kickball during recess. James Ross gave us all a blow pop.  I finished my last story in Reading today.  We played the princapal in gym and the two teachers and lost.  Then we picked up teams and our team won in volleyball.  After school I started the second present – is a pencil holder.  Jeff Krushinski came home with Ronnie.  We played a few games of baseball.  Then we spied on the little kids for a little while.  Then me and Ronnie played a little badmitten.  When I came in I noticed Dad’s Birthday Cake that Christy and Cathy made. It’s iceing was like water and it was running off the cake.  It was marshmellow so it stuck to everything.  But we ate the cake anyhow.  I gave Dad the soap carving and pencil holder.  Then we watched Chico and the Man and Hot L Baltimore. Then I went to bed.  Christy isn’t sleeping with me tonight because Cathy’s feeling much better. 
 Saturday, May 3, 1975
I got up and watched 1 hour of TV.  At about 11:00 I went outside – couldn’t find any.  Chucky was down at the shoe store.  I couldn’t find Ronnie, Scott or Tommy.  So I came home and tried to call Neal, but he was in the middle of a baseball game.  I decided to go to Staffer’s (a store).  On the way I found Ronnie, Scott and Tommy working on a go-cart.  They went up to ask if they could go too.  When I got back we worked on the go-cart.  Then I played badmitten – then we had some batting practice. After that we played some football.  Then I came in and cleared the table and went to bed.  Then I got up to watch Mary Tyler Moore.
Entries like these, and the letters – which are half of a conversation about events long forgotten – make me feel like I've led multiple lives.  That this me - of today - isn't the only me I've gotten to be. 

Reincarnation is real - it just happens so gradually that we don't notice it right away.


Friday, April 29, 2016

A bluebird's saurian eye



Cherry leaves unfurl 
unblemished. 
A dark-armored bumble 
rumbles, 
aground 
in violets, 
A saurian eye of bluebird,
chill obsidian, 
tracks it 
and waits for prey 
less massy and be-weaponed.


Saturday, April 23, 2016

Democracy within Plutocracy - Plutocracy within a Democracy


 The greatest cure for pontificating about human culture is to go out and actually talk to people in their fulsome, maddening complexity.  I promised an Enoughness Part 3 - to complement my earlier efforts to sum up the current alliance between consumerism and democratic futility.

But then I spoiled all clarity.   I had to go to Detroit and Battle Creek and Kalamazoo to actually talk to people about their political philosophies, what they think is possible and impossible, what they think the problems are, what they care about and don't care about when it comes to the state and their lives.

We needed to find the patterns that our clients could use in their efforts to re-build American democratic citizenship - before our anxieties, frustrations and despair mutate to an acquiesce to plutocracy or people seek the opportunistic demagogue who will promise at least to a return to government for the people, though not by the people.

I crafted an interview protocol to get people to talk - and took turns with my assistant - sometimes doing the conversation, sometimes wielding the camera or mic (an over-large White man trying futilely to be the quiet sidekick to a young Black woman).  We'd go out and listen to a score of people or so.  Then back in my hotel room I'd redraft the questions - and we would go out again.   Listening, challenging them, trying out gambits to convince them to take hope again in the possibilities of good self-governance.   And listening some more.  And then again.

And I sent researchers to the Front Range of Colorado - from the university town of Fort Collins to the suburbs of Denver - and up into the mountains to Grand Junction.  And each night I would talk with them about what they were hearing and look at the video they'd shot.  How people in the mountain west think about their roles and responsibilities in an American democracy.


And I sent an anthropologist (African-American this time) into the deep Delta region of eastern Arkansas and another man to the southern reaches of the Ozarks to get glimpses of those stories.  And I watched the video and talked with the researchers and listened and advised.  And then I sent the man and the videographer into Nebraska - from Omaha to Scottsbluff - and watched video of their conversations amid the small towns of the High Plains.

Today, interviewers are setting out in Charlotte, North Carolina and Portland, Oregon as we work on finishing up these conversations - this talking and listening.  I have more transcripts to read and video to watch - because it is soon time to return to pontificating.

Patterns are there, but it won't be as easy as armchair analysis about the state of the American mind, because real people don't fit the caricatures that pundits and commentators want to use.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Wintery interlude



Midway through a too-mild February 

(coaxed-up shoots of daffodil and snowdrop)

 a pair of snowstorms and arctic blast return us brutally to winter:


16 below zero, then to 10 above in breezy daylight, 

and back to 12 below.  

Wind chills range the minus thirties.

 I feed the birds when these blasts come

(juncos, cardinals, sparrows, titmice, chickadees, jays, doves, finches, and woodpeckers)

and regret the thick beard I shaved away.



The old beekeepers say the stronger colonies will survive 10 below.




Sunday, February 14, 2016

Enoughness and the Age of Consumer Capitalism, part 2


   This is the continuation of my earlier post on Enoughness . . .




Consumerism lies at the heart of our current civilization.  I don't mean we like shopping.  I mean that buying stuff stands at the very heart of our way of life.

A culture can include for its people a vision of a larger project beyond themselves.  Our own civilization has dabbled in grand projects - from Christian missions to the Space Race - from nation-building and modernization - to Manifest Destiny and America as beacon of democracy.

When you look around today, you'll find little in the way of grand visions.  Progress has been variously imagined, but today it has been pruned down to little more than the incremental tweaks of a smart phone obsolescence cycle - or at best, imaginary self-driving cars.

You might well argue that it's not such a bad thing that we set aside grand visions.  Not only have they proven dangerous, they also have rarely been the concern of the average person, who generally prefers to be left in peace to invest their energies into the mundane concerns of working and wooing and raising their offspring.

But no one really escapes the assumptions and demands of their culture, and here in the mundane is where consumerism truly permeates.  In a thousand subtle ways, our society tells us that the very point of our existence is to consume.  If you are poor you have failed in every important way.  You ought to have the wherewithal to buy those things that demonstrate your ambition and commitment to success.

But of course there is no ultimate success - there is only more striving.  Consumerism is not something that has a conclusion.  On the contrary, there is no level you can reach where you will be safe from an army of marketers that is taking aim squarely at whatever potential inklings of satisfaction or satiety or enoughness you might achieve.  Once the needs of life have been met, then production and advertising becomes all about irritation - trying to create an itch that only this product can scratch and soothe.  To distract you from any budding sense that you might actually already have what you need.

Hundreds of billions of dollars are spent each year creating that itch and that lure.  It's commonplace to complain about the oppressive ubiquity of advertising around us - and the way it uglifies and degrades the spaces around us.  But we don't often think about how much of the world we inhabit is designed and built as a stupendous architecture for fueling and enforcing consumerism.   Enoughness must not be allowed to take root.



Human culture is a dynamic inter-reaction between the actual practices of everyday life and a set of guiding ideas, motifs, myths and grand narratives.  What are the implications when our myths are no longer stories that we tell each other, but stories sold to us by vast profit-making corporations?  When we don't sing our own songs to our children and our lovers, but consume them from a music industry?     What does it mean when all of our information about our communities, our political leaders, our collective realities is processed for us by media companies whose sole and overriding goal is to sell our attention to other companies who need us to buy their stuff?

Many of the largest, most familiar, most sophisticated and most profitable corporations in the world don't make their enormous profits from the products they create.  They make their profits by selling us, our attention, our vulnerability and our consumerist potentials to their actual, fee-paying clients.  For Google and Facebook, you are not a customer, but the product they sell to advertisers.  CNN, Fox News, the networks, Clear Channel Radio don't sell their media productions to you.   Those concoctions exist for the sole purpose of luring you away from a life you might be leading in order to keep you in front of that screen absorbing a paid advertisement.  The NBA, NFL, Major League baseball would wither away if they had to rely on ticket sales.  The big money comes from selling all the eyeballs that an entertaining game secures for the sponsors.

I began this essay, by saying that consumerism lies at the heart of the matter.  The powers that be will tell us that this is just our natural, inevitable state, but clearly there is a vast amount of creative and economic energy devoted to molding us into consumers - consumers who just can't get enough.

Next week, I'll continue with some thoughts about the limits and exits from consumerism . . .

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Enoughness and the Age of Consumer Capitalism, part 1

trees reflected in a winter pool

There is nothing more destructive to capitalism than the satisfied customer.

Lately, much of my work professionally is focused on reviving American practices of democratic citizenship, as well as reforming our economic culture and our public policies in ways that are less destructive to ourselves and our world.  There are various dynamics at work, but when I look around at all the various problems and potentials of our era, I've long maintained that consumerism is at the heart of the matter.

I thought I'd make use of this blog to try to flesh out my thinking on the topic, so bear with me . . .

--------------------

Depending on your priorities, market capitalism can be an efficient way to organize your economic affairs.  Those who possess wealth set up enterprises, and those who don't have wealth must exchange hours of work for a wage.  The desire for a good wage motivates the have-nots to be diligent and ambitious workers and the desire for profits motivates the haves to create goods for their customers in a cost-effective way.  When government is strong enough and democratic enough to set ground rules and make sure the common good is protected to some degree, it's not a terrible system.

For millennia the grunt-work of civilization was done with human and animal bodies, supplemented with the power of falling water and bustling wind, but now coal, oil and gas do the work and ask for no wage other than the effort it takes to get them out of the ground.

It's probably more accurate to call our current system "consumer capitalism," because the energy subsidy from fossil fuels enables a new variant, in which wage earners don't just occupy themselves with subsistence - the reproduction of the workforce - but they secure enough wealth to become key customers in their own right.  And they become a necessary and vital market for the goods being produced.

By the time we got a ways into the 20th century, there was actually enough wealth being produced to ensure material security for everyone, arguably even to a degree of comfort and luxury that would have satisfied an upper middle class burgher from a few generations past.  Leisure and time - freedom from labor and drudgery - had been the privilege of the few, but was now within the grasp of the many.

I ponder what might have happened if we had developed "enoughness" as a core cultural value- if our system had been oriented toward ensuring that people found satisfaction and self-actualization in a materially modest, cozy existence where there was less work and more leisure, more fellowship and edification and less competitive consumption.

But that is clearly not where we've ended up.    Today, instead of free time we have workers putting in 60-hour weeks to pay the rent or rise up the ladder, and mothers dropping their 3-week old babies at daycare.

We have millions of young people medicated and self-medicating to endure a ruthless culture of striving, in which the ability to stay focussed on working and spending are the parameters of life's success.


Our time away from work is no longer "free", but instead an effort of consumerist leisure - whether passively consuming media products or actively - and expensively - constructing our identities as golfers or runners, backpackers or Caribbean vacationers, video gamers or stadium tailgaters.

We work long hours for our wages and forget how to do a thousand things our great grandparents could do for themselves.  We've had our crafts and callings taken from us and replaced with things and services that we can buy from our direct-deposit paychecks.

We bring the global poor into our orbit as factory drones, but with the promise that they can soon join us under the bright lights of our consumerism.

Along a different trajectory, within a culture of enoughness, we might have been the beneficiaries of a golden age of prosperity and civilization - or at least achieved some sort of sustainable global existence. Is it so hard to imagine?

Next week, I'll continue my effort to sketch out this predicament - and the ways that our unhappy system is enforced and evaded . . .

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Down to the future



This is an old chart that my father drew up over 30 years ago, around the time I was starting in college, and the global population was 4.7 billion.  The brown line at the top represents available natural resources.  The red line represents population, and the green line, available food.  It makes a simple, straightforward and true point - that natural resources don't increase in the way population and food production have, and at some point in the future declining resources meet ascending demands and so population stops increasing.  Depending on the choices we make it could stabilize or crash catastrophically.


This was true then and true today - as global economic growth starts shuddering to a halt; as soil and water resources degrade; as the anthropocene extinction event continues inexorably; and as climate change inserts itself as a destabilizing wild card.

Nevertheless, after drawing up this chart, my father went on to complete his career and settle into retirement without ever seeing the elbow in this graph.  He didn't join a commune or build a bunker.  He worked and paid his taxes - sent his kids off to colleges and graduate schools, watched them get jobs and found families of their own.  He worked as an educator, activist and community leader to create smarter and more resilient communities around himself, but he didn't or couldn't extricate himself from our doomed and destructive way of living.

I study this yellowed and dog-eared piece of posterboard, as I prepare to usher my own son off to college.  I wonder whether I will retire into a society that continues to tread water despite it's unsustainability - or whether I'll come to regret not joining a commune or building a bunker.  I wonder whether I've given my sons enough resilience to deal with what is coming - the elbow in that chart that we still refuse to prepare for.

In the end, I do much as my father did - work to create more resilient people, environments and communities, keep alive a handful of useful skills including gardening, storytelling, and ecology, and engage with the world we have as best I can.  It's even possible my sons will do the same.  The human ability to muddle along is not to be underestimated . . .

For a complementary rumination upon this dilemma I recommend Brian Kaller's eloquent blog.



Thursday, January 7, 2016

Nine predictions for 2016


In the spirit of making this an annual exercise in humility, here are my 9 predictions for 2016:
  • 2016 comes in at the second hottest year on record, just behind 2015.
  • Clinton / O'Malley handily defeats Trump / Rubio in the presidential election, despite months of breathless concern trolling on the part of the punditocracy. 
  • Obama ushers out his presidency with an unprecedented number of blanket pardons for non-violent drug offenders.
  • A cultural panic ensues when a US community outlaws the playing of football for youths under the age of 18.  The state legislature quickly repeals the law.
  • As Iranian oil comes to market OPEC finally ratchets down production to keep oil in the $30-50 range for most of the year.
  • Domestic terrorism - especially against Blacks, Muslims and liberals - will claim more American lives than Daesh, Al-Quaida and their ilk combined.
  • Vladimir Putin will survive an assassination attempt.
  • Internet advertising will be exposed as utterly ineffective, and the business model for internet content suppliers begins to collapse in earnest.
Then of course, it is easier to predict the many things that could change, but probably won't.  So folded into prediction #9:
  • Because representational democracy has gone off the rails at the federal level there are a number of things that won't change:
    • Americans won't take back their democracy from the wealthy interests that have hijacked it; and corporations will continue to write regulations to suit themselves.
    • Assault weapons will remain legal despite more mass shootings.
    • Militarization of police forces, systematic use of homicide and excessive force, as well as officers' de facto immunity from prosecution will continue unabated despite the mounting financial and social costs.
    • We will not develop a constructive or effective plan for dealing with Islamic fundamentalism.
And now is when I note that all of my predictions seem awfully gloomy or pessimistic.  When it comes to optimistic predictions that could be concrete enough to be judged right or wrong a year from now, it's hard to see important trends that are looking positive.  

I asked Nico, who just turned 14, what progress he saw being made in 2015.  What were the things that showed us humans moving forward?  For him, the acceptance of gay marriage, improvements in prosthetics and the successes in robotic space exploration (Mars, Pluto, Asteroids) were the main ones that came to mind.  And maybe something would come out of the Paris accords on climate change. Not exactly a landslide of positivity.

For 2016, it seems likely that Black Lives Matter will successfully bend the trend away from ever more lethal policing against minorities.  It's possible that the Republican party's current experiment with extremism, will scare it back toward sanity and toward an engagement in governance once again.   I hold out hope that young people will increasingly seek creative ways out of the consumerist cul de sac they've been led into.

But for the most part, I foresee another year in which we muddle along and fail to solve the problems which are rumbling beneath us like methane bubbles in a melting permafrost. 





Thursday, December 31, 2015

Looking back at my predictions for 2015

I'll emerge from my blogging hiatus to revisit last year's predictions to see if I can improve on my 2 out of 9 from last year.  In terms of the big picture, my over-arching prediction from the beginning of 2014 has remained accurate.  We mostly muddled along with the status quo and we neither made progress on solving our problems nor did we bring our civilization finally crashing down upon our collective heads.

But I did go out on a limb with 9 predictions for 2015 - Let's see how I fared.  I predicted that:
  • It will be one of the three hottest years ever recorded globally.
1 for 1.  Global temperatures began a leap upwards this year, and 2015 will go down as the hottest on record.
  • Obama attempts to put ending mass incarceration onto the public agenda.  In particular, the incarceration of non-violent drug offenders.  The possibility of blanket pardons cause the Republicans to go ballistic and half of the Democratic party runs for cover.
1.5 for 2. Half credit.  Obama actually did make the effort, but a distracted media and a dysfunctional Congress ensured that it never took center stage.  Instead, Black Lives Matter emerged as a powerful civil rights movement protesting the slaughter of African Americans by police.
  • Ebola flares up in Asia.  These several thousand deaths rattle the global economy much more than the African outbreak did.
1.5 for 3. No credit.  Ebola slowly burned itself out in West Africa and fortunately gained no foothold elsewhere.
  • Americans are shocked when police officers in a major metropolitan area are found to have intentionally singled out and assassinated several critics of police brutality.
1.5 for 4. No credit. The atrocities perpetrated by bad cops continue to mount, but this one doesn't seem to be in the tally.
  • Globally, disgust with their political elites continues to bolster support for radical, anti-establishment parties, and in more than one European country they win power, if not for long.
2 for 5. Half credit. Syriza in Greece and the recent up-ending of the status quo by Podemos and Ciudadanos in Spain fall into the spirit of this prediction, but for the most part Europeans didn't rise up to throw the bums out.  
  • Occupy re-emerges as a political force among the younger generation - organized around its "debt jubilee" and other efforts to disentangle young people from participation in an economic and political system that is rigged against them.  The Establishment derides them as naive and disengaged.
2 for 6. No credit. The mantle of youthful discontent and economic critique was picked up by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren instead.  
  • (Carried over from last year) One of the world's great monoculture crops will mostly fail this year.  Although this will be blamed on a new pest or blight, the failure will actually be due to a combination of narrow genetics, unstable climate and the decline in agricultural research.
2 for 7. No credit. Agriculture plugged along despite its unsustainable and fragile state.
  • Kitchen gardens, backyard chickens and other small animal husbandry continue to increase dramatically in popularity and practice in the US.  Grassroots pressure to change zoning and regulatory restrictions continue to find success.
2 for 7. No idea.  I haven't researched it.  Certainly the media isn't talking about it.
  • Oil stays below $70 per barrel.  Low gas and oil prices drive several mid-sized energy companies in the US to loan defaults and bankruptcy.  The government organizes a multi-billion dollar bailout of loan guarantees and subsidies to keep drilling operations going, and to keep dreams of Saudi America alive.
2.5 for 8.  Half credit.  Oil did indeed stay below $70 (and is currently under $40 a barrel), and energy companies have been bankrupting themselves, but it hasn't gotten to a crisis stage yet, nor has the government had to intervene.

So, compliments of some slightly generous grading I give myself a 31% accuracy rate, which is a significant improvement over last year's 22%.  We'll see if I can improve on that for 2016.


Monday, September 7, 2015

August Travels

 August flew.

On the second of the month I flew out to Denver.  A research question had arisen about how people respond to the idea of raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

I had wanted to go back to Colorado in any case, and there were some good reasons to select it as a field site.  So my videographer and I met there and spent a few days button-holing people in Denver and out in the blasted parts of Aurora - getting folks to talk about the good things and the bad things of raising the minimum wage.

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday.  We'd start early so we could wrap up our interviewing before the day would finish its relentless climb into the upper 90's.  Then we'd deal with the data we had and figure out where to get ourselves some dinner and some beer.

We had about 50 interviews done, which what we'd promised, by the time I settled him at his hotel on Wednesday afternoon.


From there it was off to pick up the travel-weary Monica and the boys at the airport.

After day or so's interlude in Colorado Springs - where I did some more interviewing, and Porter visited a college - we tooled on up through Boulder - (another college) - and onto the lap of the Rocky Mountains.


And joined Mark, Sarah and their kids in Estes Park, 
where the meadows are still in bloom, even in arid August.


My sister, Christine, flew in to join us and by Sunday morning we'd strapped on our backpacks.


We all hiked up from Bear Lake to Lake Helene,


And down into Odessa Gorge,


To a ranger cabin on Fern Lake.

Mark is a park ranger.  He and the kids fished for trout.  As did an osprey.

Pine martens hunted the lakeside and the cabin's stone foundation, 
and I saw one make off with a ground squirrel.



On Monday we hiked to Spruce Lake and further up to Loomis Lake, in its snow-streaked cirque.  

Where we ate lunch.


But only Chris and I were lunatic enough to swim with the trout in the green, frigid water.

Pikas mocked us from the talus.


On Tuesday it was time to hike back out - our packs lightened by a couple days of eating.

On Wednesday - by now we're to the 12th - we said our fond farewells,
 headed up the Fall River road, and over the pass.


Saying so long to the marmots and the ptarmigan.

And we drove out along the creekish headwaters of the Colorado river 
and all the way to Utah, 
to pitch out tents along the Green River at Dinosaur National Monument.


Where we looked at petroglyphs and dinosaur bones.


and hiked


for a day.


And then drove north through Wyoming


Looking for bighorn sheep, but they eluded us.

We camped in the sagebrush under vast and star-gritted skies,
and watched the Perseid meteors streak along the Milky Way.

On Friday we stopped in Jackson to buy supplies 
and skirted the Grand Tetons which were dark purple and flickering with lightning.


To visit the geyser basins


and the wildlife


of Yellowstone National Park.



We camped at Lewis Lake for Friday and Saturday nights,


and spent the days around the park.



On Sunday afternoon (by now the 16th) we drove northwards to Coeur d'Alene.

Porter, at 17, has a learners permit and we gave him the wheel.

And then on to Seattle across the smokey plains of Eastern Washington, 
where we visited with an old friend just out of surgery.


Into the Cascades, weaving a bit to avoid the fires that filled the skies sometimes with acrid haze.


Out and down along the Columbia river gorge to Portland, 
where it was a withering hundred degrees, buying books and seeing friends.

And back again into the Cascades.


To chill morning hot springs along the Umpqua river


and famous volcanic lakes


until we got to old friends in Sacramento and Davis.

And delivered Porter to his school in Carpinteria,


and his view down mesa to the Pacific ocean.


By the time we flew home I'd been gone three and a half weeks and August had flown.