Sunday, February 26, 2017

Fallow garden

I didn't maintain a garden last year.  I was doing a great deal of traveling for work, and so the crown vetch had its way with it. I could claim to be practicing the age old practice of leaving one's plot go fallow.  The vetch, being a legume, is a nitrogen fixer and could be considered a good green manure and cover crop - and even a living mulch for those plants that grow up past it (like my asparagus and sun chokes).   In any case, I'll have to coexist with it somewhat in that it is thoroughly invasive, and basically impossible to eradicate at this point without resorting to herbicides.

Last year's growth covered the entire garden in a deep dry thatch, and since yesterday was a warm February afternoon Monica and I raked it up as best we could and burned most of it little by little on the main garden bed.  We kept an eye on the little flames as they crept around in the rest of the garden turning last year's weeds to this year's fertilizer.

The rhubarb is already peeking out, and since the ground isn't frozen I should harvest a bucket of sunchokes for pickling before they start to sprout as well.  

Nothing but potential
I've been going to the gym lately, but as the weather warms it looks like my exercise minutes will be better spent preparing the ground for the superfluity of seeds that I've ordered . . . 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Politics: The Bad, Not-So-Bad, and the Almost Good.

Moonstone Beach, Rhode Island

It's now a month since Donald Trump was inaugurated into office.  Yet so far, damage has been limited by the administration's inexperience, incompetence and political isolation.  The ability of the Republican Party to take advantage has been hampered by its own awkward transition from a voice of wild criticism (insulated from consequence by supine journalism and Obama's veto pen) to a ruling party that has to put its money where its mouth is, so to speak.  The stumbling has been compounded by Paul Ryan's miscalculation that he could first and foremost take down the Affordable Care Act before his caucus woke up to the political dangers of stripping health insurance from millions of Americans in order to give millionaires a tax cut.  It must make it seem all the more ill-timed that Trump's attacks on the media have shattered the complacency of the courtier press and woken many journalists up to their historical role as check on (and fact-checker of) the powerful.  Given how unpopular many of the Party's core priorities are, the last thing they need is an assertive press insisting on truth-telling or accurate math.

Although gerrymandering and the Citizen's United ruling insulate most of the House from any real blowback, they can't be happy to see the body politic getting itself riled up about Republican mis-rule.  Even quiescent constituencies like scientists, spies and bureaucrats have bestirred themselves.

In this latest installment about politics in the twilight of American empire, I thought I'd lay out a few of the repercussions that strike me as interesting.

The bad:

The vulnerable: Any political analysis today has to acknowledge that people are going to be hurt.  When it comes to the most marginalized, Americans wield their fantasies of meritocracy like a club.  We have set up a system that disadvantages certain people and then we blame them for their own lack of success.  Women, minorities, the young, the poor, the working class and so on, all swim upstream in the face of active opposition.  Now, our nation's worst tendencies of willful blindness, rationalization and cruelty will get free reign.  The message from on high - as they shred the safety net and whatever other protections and compensations we've managed to put into place - will be to blame the individual or to blame the Other, but don't blame the system or the powerful people who benefit from it, because that would be whining.  

Attacks on immigrants:  Families who have emigrated here will be torn apart and made scapegoats for a system that was created and maintained by powerful, wealthy men.  These are men who bankroll our politics and who preferred to create and maintain an underworld of vulnerable "illegals" rather than a system of legal immigration.  It's a system successfully designed to lower wages and decrease organized labor's influence by creating a politically weak form of second-class citizenship - and drive a wedge into the heart of the working class.

Xenophobic Isolationism:  From a progressive perspective, creating, nurturing and maintaining connections between cultures, nations, religions makes us a stronger, more resilient society.  For a host of reasons, it also keeps us safer in the face of threats like international (or domestic) terrorism. In contrast, xenophobic propaganda, tribalism and withdrawal - which characterizes the Trump administration - does the opposite.  They will not only fail to make us safer, but they will use their failure (i.e. the next terror attack by a non-Christian, non-White) to consolidate their power.

The not so bad:

Populism:  The pernicious, unspoken consensus among the political class about "free trade," economic globalization and trickle down effects has been broken now that the population has been given the opportunity to weigh in on a rogue candidate.  Although Trump is a crony capitalist rather than a populist (while his inner circle is more nationalist), he rode American populist anger to power and that genie will be hard for the parties to put back into the bottle.  For better or worse, both are now more open to attack by populists of various stripes.

The almost good:

Political Action:  Before November, my main concern about political culture was that the American experiment in democracy and middle-class capitalism would die with barely a whimper and fade into idiocratic oligarchy or corporate rule, but it seems democratization and government by the people is back on the table.  Grass roots conservatives were already restive obviously, but the threat of unfettered Republican rule has meant an end to a complacent faith among progressives about Progress with a capital P, and activism is suddenly on the upswing.  It remains to be seen whether that will be sustainable or effective, given how much effort has already gone into removing the levers of power from democratic reach, but people are paying attention in a way that is new and potentially disruptive.  

Re-Localization: There is a tension between local rule and state and federal rule.  Liberals embraced federal rule in part in order to overrule local and state preferences for racism, homophobia, patriarchy, environmental despoilment and so on.   Conservatives have resented being ruled by outside elites and liberals are waking up to find they like it just as much.  The current political flip opens to the door for a push among progressives for greater local control to pursue progressive agendas.  Given the fact that the federal government has shown little or no capacity to head off or solve the problems coming down the pipeline (including climate change, the end of cheap oil, economic de-growth, and winding down the US empire) it may be that our only hope of successful adaptation is to rely on a diversity of local approaches - rather than one organized from the top down.  I can't help but think that the sooner local democracy emerges from its current atrophied condition, the more likely we are to build more resilient localities.

But as the wise say,

We'll see.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Predictions for 2017

After proving on this blog once again that prediction can be a sucker's game, I finished up my wandering around central Florida (where I was interviewing people on their attitudes about voting and voter suppression) and made a short trip to Atlanta.  I was talking to people about prostitution, sexism and feminism, but also walked in the city's huge and inspiring Martin Luther King Jr. march.  This and other research (on race and governance; fuel efficiency; economic security; ageism) kept me busy this fall and winter - circulating from Carbondale, Pennsylvania to Buckley, Washington; Pueblo, Colorado to Apopka, Florida; San Francisco to Chicago; Hickory, North Carolina to Chula Vista, California.

None of that enabled me to predict the ascension of Donald Trump, however.  I had felt the anger and contempt out there for the corrupted leadership of this country, and despair that the political class wanted to offer us nothing but more of the same.  But I thought the populace was still too conservative to elect such a transparent charlatan to tip over the apple cart.  I fully expected Trump to fail, but to pave the way for a less flawed populist.

But here we are, with a pop-cultural punchline as our head of state and a radical Republican party with few if any of the traditional checks upon it.  Their first project - how to get away with stripping 20-30 million people of their health insurance in order to give the wealthy a tax cut - will tell us much about the type of republic we now live in.

But I promised predictions.  

So, for that annual exercise in humility I will go out on a limb and predict a few specifics:

  1. There will be a crackdown after Black Lives Matter is classified as a terrorist organization.
  2. There will be an attempted crackdown against McClatchy News, which will mostly backfire, giving investigative journalism a much-needed shot in the arm.
  3. 2017 will turn out to be second hottest year on record, right behind 2016.
  4. The Republican leadership will allow Democrats (and a few Republicans) to impeach Donald Trump on charges of corruption and self-dealing, but he is not removed from office.
  5. Serious unrest in Turkey enables Russia to intervene militarily.
  6. The real estate market of south Florida collapses due to the threat of sea level rise.
  7. Overtly political songs begin to surface more in popular music - but not on the radio.
  8. Thousands of people will be poisoned by water contaminated by fracking.
  9. Brazil's government falls in a coup d'etat.
  10. For my tenth prediction, I might as well recycle the one from last year that proved most prescient:

    • 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.
So, come January 2018 - if the I and the internet are still standing, we'll see what I got right . . . .

Friday, January 6, 2017

Looking back at predictions for 2016


Let's whisper this blog back to life.

I began a tradition of making January predictions - and looking back to see how inaccurate the past year's predictions were (which if nothing else disqualifies me from the ranks of the proper punditariat).

Shall we see how I did?

Here were my 9 predictions for 2016:

  • 2016 comes in at the second hottest year on record, just behind 2015.
Nope.  It was far and away the hottest.
  • Clinton / O'Malley handily defeats Trump / Rubio in the presidential election, despite months of breathless concern trolling on the part of the punditocracy. 
Yeah, no.  I thought the US electorate was too conservative to really bring someone in to tip over the apple cart.  I figured the status quo had another election cycle, especially given the flawed nature of the main Republican con artist.  But clearly the anything-but-more-Clinton animus won out among enough people.
  • Obama ushers out his presidency with an unprecedented number of blanket pardons for non-violent drug offenders.
Wishful thinking on my part.  Unashamed, America continues to imprison people at a rate that easily outstrips all other countries - no matter how despotic they aspire to be.
  • 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.
Not yet, though I still like that prediction.
  • As Iranian oil comes to market OPEC finally ratchets down production to keep oil in the $30-50 range for most of the year.
Well, sorta.  It was demand destruction more than OPEC that kept oil prices below $50 - except for a couple of months when it flirted with $55.
  • Domestic terrorism - especially against Blacks, Muslims and liberals - will claim more American lives than Daesh, Al-Quaida and their ilk combined.
Omar Mateen's massacre of gay men at the Pulse nightclub was the splashiest, but even more Black and Hispanic men continue to be incarcerated and murdered by police in a pattern of systematic terrorism.
  • 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.
Nope.  $70 billion is being spent on ads to your computer and cell phone.  
  • 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.
Well, on the last one - that we basically won't do anything to solve any of our big problems - turned out to be the solidest prediction.  And one that can clearly be recycled for the coming year.

Interestingly, faith in Progress turned out to be one of the year's biggest casualties.  Certainly among liberals, the ascension of Trump (and the murder of radicals cawing around his impending presidency) have been a bucket of cold water thrown on progressive assumptions about where this civilization was going.  The Trumpenproletariat, of course, had already seen Progress go off the rails as far as they were concerned.

The hive mind has become more consciously aware that something is amiss.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

My life experienced as a sequence of cars

 In 1981, as soon as I was old enough, I took my driver’s test in a ‘64 sky blue Ford Falcon – a three-speed column shift.  The sedan had belonged to my great aunt Ann, who never drove it much.  I failed magnificently the first test - mis-releasing the clutch, bunny-hopping into the driving course’s little fake intersection and stalling out. 

The first car I actually owned outright was a red-orange Ford Maverick that my grandmother had accepted to settle some debt at the general store.  I bought it from her for something under $300.  I got a year or so’s worth out of it, but when it threatened to start sucking me dry with repair bills – I sold it to someone I can’t remember for the same amount I’d paid for it.  Caveat emptor.

So the family Falcon served until the fall of 1983, when I went off to college in Philadelphia, where it made no sense to have a car. 

(In fact, the only time I had wheels in Philly was 1987, when I was the founding field manager for PA PIRG’s fund-raising canvas, and had a company rental car to tool around in in my free time, which meant whenever we weren’t canvassing, sleeping or drinking pitchers of Yuengling porter at McGlintchy’s – which meant pretty much never.  I ruined three of those cars – all in the line of duty.  Over the course of a week, the first car gradually developed an acrid burning smell and fewer and fewer gears, until it had no gears at all and I had to call a tow truck.  A second car I just outright wrecked (possibly running a red light, though I don’t remember any light at all).  I got T-boned by a heavy steel van, which reduced one of my more fragile canvassers to tears and a week of hypochondria.  Within the week, the replacement had the window shot out as we drove through suburban Ardmore.  Probably a BB-gun, since we’d have noticed a bullet I think.  That last one was kind of a relief because I’d destroyed the rubber seals on that window breaking in with a coat hanger.  And since my boss happened to be in the passenger’s seat when all the shattered glass fell into his lap, it was pretty clear I couldn’t be blamed for that one . . . )

Anyhow, by the time the car had been returned with a hundred unpaid parking tickets, I had left Philadelphia and moved to central Massachusetts in pursuit of an Englishwoman I was in love with.  I got by with my old silver Motebecane Mirage bicycle – and hitchhiking.

A few months later, after things had blown up with the Englishwoman, I was in the Poconos helping my grandmother with the store.   At the end of the winter, as a thank you, she sent me off with a ‘78 Chrysler LeBaron that had belonged to her boyfriend Stan.  It was maroon and silver land yacht that drank gas like a sailor and I put a million miles on it driving around the US and Canada as though it were Belgium.   At the end of summer 1990, I sold it to a fearless guy in Eugene Oregon for $175 because the chassis was apparently ‘soft’ and the mechanic seemed legitimately concerned for my life.  

As mentioned earlier, I got by in San Diego with that Motebecane, but after a year of it I bought a sooty yellow Rabbit diesel with 150,000 miles on it for $500.  A previous owner had welded in a second gas tank and with the full twenty gallons you could drive 800 miles between fill-ups.  This was the car I was driving in the days when I met Monica, which demonstrates her shining ability to see past an unpromising first impression.  (She was getting around on a red Kawasaki motorcycle at the time.)  The car survived to some point in 1995, but I had left it at my father’s while we were in Kazakhstan for a couple of years and he got tired of being saddled with a sooty decrepit Rabbit as a driveway ornament and sent it off to the junkyard.  I can’t blame him, since by then one of the doors wouldn't open and I was the only one who could coax it into life in anything below 50 degree weather.  (A rolling start always helped, but my father wasn’t that motivated.)

In 1996 my grandfather was upgrading his car and unloaded a Ford Fairlane on us, behind whose solid steel bumper Monica gained her first experiences with Pennsylvania black ice – taking out both a stop sign (no harm) and a pine tree (yeah, some harm).  But the old Fairlane took us back to San Diego.  Before it could fail its inaugural emissions test we traded it in, buying a near-new ‘97 Saturn station wagon, which at $12,000 was 24 times more than either of us had ever paid for a car. 

We crossed to the new millennium with two nearly new cars – the Saturn and a ’95 Jeep Wrangler, which was named Wilhemina.  She was sold a couple of years later while we were living in Ireland where for three years I drove an anonymous rented Vauxhall with the steering wheel on the wrong side.

The Saturn persisted through all of this as this time my father didn’t send the car to the junkyard.  When we moved to Rhode Island with our now eight-year old Saturn, I said to myself, we need to go shopping for a second car – because even though we don’t need a second car very often, we do need it sometimes. 

Thus began an epic decade of car-shopping procrastination.  I don’t think I can reconstruct all of the machinations that went into me not ever buying a second car, but I think it started with my sister’s wedding, when they sent us back across country from California driving my brother-in-law’s grandmother’s old Dodge Raider.  (They were relocating themselves, but it would be nearly a year before they reclaimed it from us.)  I think by then, Monica had taken a part time job driving an enormous Suburban for the school we’d enrolled the boys in – and that became our second car for two or three years.  When she’d had enough of carting school kids and turned in the SUV, Monica did actually buy a Saturn sedan off of Craigslist for two thousand dollars, but within a month or two she totaled it, getting rear-ended while buying eggs from a local farmer – so that car hardly counts.  At some point my father off-loaded his Dodge Van on us, but it was never going to pass inspection in Rhode Island, so I sold it to an old man who seemed down on his luck and I’m sure that van didn’t help.  Friends moved to Japan for a 18 months and needed someone to look after their zippy little Impreza.  And finally, my mother’s reliable and well-preserved ’96 Honda Accord came our way when she upgraded to a Lincoln hybrid. 

The old lady – our once-reliable Saturn gradually became the second car. 

But my mother’s old trooper of a ‘96 Honda Accord – is also showing its age.  The odometer stopped working after it’s last inspection, so the mileage remains a perpetually spry 264,954.  The radio comes and goes and we need pliers to adjust heating.

So in December we did the unthinkable.  We finally went car shopping and quickly bought a brand new 2016 Toyota hybrid Rav 4.  There was no bargaining, because only show models could be found and we had to pry the vehicle away from the dealership.

And so the Saturn was demoted to third car.   It is still parked just off the driveway by the woodpile, finally looking entirely derelict and forlorn – with a bashed bumper (we spent that long-ago insurance money on something besides fixing the bumper) a roof scraped and scratched from ill-advised snow-shoveling, a speedometer that thinks you’re always driving 40, windshield wipers that spontaneously jump to startling life on cold mornings, and ceiling fabric hanging in drapes and tatters.  And since it failed to start in March – demoted still further to ugly driveway ornament.

I have to jump start it and drive it away to the salvage yard,  because I need that spot.  Porter's aunt has a '98 Honda to unload and she figures her more or less penniless nephew could make use of it when he goes off to college this fall.  

And so the cycle of life continues . . . 

Friday, May 13, 2016

Gypsy moth infestations

a freshly hatched gypsy moth caterpillar

Growing up in Pennsylvania in the 1980s I saw years when the leaves came out on the trees in May and were gone by middle of June.  From a distance, the rolling, forested hills would look like they had in March – all grays and browns.  Up close, hiking in the woods you would hear a constant hiss of frass falling from the gypsy moth caterpillars above - like a dry rain.  

The first year or two trees would re-leaf by July, but if the moths persisted trees would begin to die.

Here in Rhode Island, flocks of grackles – accompanied by a few cuckoos – spent a couple of weeks last summer in our woods at the height of the caterpillar season.  (The two species have found ways to deal with spiny caterpillars like the gypsy moth.  The yellow-billed cuckoo can discard its stomach lining once it has ruined it with the caterpillar's defensive spines; the grackles seem to take the more direct approach of trying to beat the spines off by smacking them against a tree branch.)  

But there is only so much they can do, and at the end of summer there were hundreds of tawny egg patches - proof that plenty of moths had evaded predation.

Now the trees are coming into leaf, and tiny newly hatched caterpillars are on the move.  That's what has me recalling the deforestation of years past.  Maybe it will turn out to be a localized outbreak and the cuckoos and grackles will come back with friends to share the bounty.  Or maybe it will be like the bad old days, where defoliation stretched mile after mile.

with ballpoint pen, for scale

Friday, May 6, 2016

More reminiscing - Tucson to San Diego

Once, when I was living in San Diego, some old friends were gathering in Tucson.  This must have been at the beginning of the 90s, because there was a year or so there when I didn’t have a car.  I discarded my ’78 Chrysler LeBaron in Eugene, Oregon for a cool $175, and a year of bicycling passed before I acquired an old diesel VW rabbit - bought for $500 from someone who was leaving San Diego in a hurry.  For this trip to Arizona I know I didn’t have a car, because I took the Greyhound bus from San Diego to Tucson, which is something only a person without a car would do.

Photo credit: Dan Goldstein
My only recollection of that journey is the aftermath, standing at the fumey bus station, sore from hours in seats designed for very small people – designed specifically for a ridership shrunken and stunted from the poverty and desperation that drives one to ride a Greyhound bus between San Diego and Tucson.  Standing in front of the baggage claim desk – who knew such a thing even existed – being told that they had somehow lost my luggage, despite the luggage transaction being pretty simple and straightforward.  They were just supposed to have put my bag under the damned bus.

So with sore knees and no toothbrush nor change of clothes, I solemnly swore that the Greyhound corporation would no longer have the custom of Andrew J. Brown, future Doctor of Anthropology.

Nevertheless, after a successfully pleasant and reviving visit with old college friends – I went and did reclaim my pack from that bus company that was dead to me.  (Now I had two toothbrushes – since it turned out such were indeed for sale even in Arizona.)  But I was not prepared to forgive nor was I willing to be ground down – wedged tight from knee to sacrum - by plasticated seatage and 13 hours of transit purgatory.

Tied securely to my pack, I had a light summer sleeping bag. Whether this was foresight on my part or a loaner from a friend – I don’t remember.  Importantly, that item meant that I wasn’t bound to civilization or its abusive transit companies. I was an autonomous being – with my own portable home, like a tortoise or a Pima.  I’d hitchhiked plenty before – navigated the tundra of Finland and escaped the suburbs of DC.  It was with the optimism of experience that I hugged my friends goodbye by their desiccated ocotillo hedge, and strode off to the byways of the desert.

To this point, most of my hitchhiking had been done farther north.  In the northeast, where people are really too busy to develop elaborate, time-consuming fetishes about murdering hitchhikers and other vagabonds.  Or the vast sweep of the Great Lakes and northern plains, where murderous urges have been pretty much sublimated into church feuds, school board elections and Rotarian lunches.  Certainly nothing to trouble your average hitchhiker over-much.  Granted, the Pacific Northwest’s variety of ride-sharer seemed a bit sketchier and more drug-addled, but still pretty innocent.

But maybe the north is different.  In any case, it turns out that the Sonoran desert between Tucson and San Diego is peopled by another breed entirely.  Maybe it’s that night sky that flips a billion starry middle fingers to the significance of your ephemeral shuffle upon the coil.  Maybe it’s those unresolved tensions with your next door neighbor, an equally sun-stricken misanthrope across ten miles of creosote brush.  People driving across the desert did indeed seem to have time enough on their hands for elaborate hobbies and enthusiasms.

On the bright side, there’s also a kind of carelessness about consequence that means they will pick up a skinny, nervous-looking vagabond in the desert.  So there’s that.

As I entrusted my fragile-seeming body into one battered truck and sand-scoured car after another, I was mostly quiet and only sometimes did I ruminate about all of my fellow Greyhound passengers who had dozed away in that well-lit and public space of a bus and who would have been hard put to secretly murder me – even if their crushed and small-seated souls had retained such energy and ambition. 

But in the end finally, after enough hours of sidelong glances and crackling, apocalyptic AM radio, as night was falling, I was set down anti-climactically in the stubble of an alfalfa field.  I’d crossed the desert to the Imperial Valley – a verdant swale of farming dangling south of the Salton Sea.  Interstate 8 hummed and sparkled to the south of me.  I climbed one of the huge rectilinear stacks of hay bales – two stories high and the size of a Mississippi river barge.  Standing atop you could see for miles into the dusk.  Sit down, and the land disappeared.  It was just sky above – and no one would ever know you were there except for the herons who flew hwarking overhead on their way to the rookeries.  And that suited me fine. 

By then the billion starry middle fingers were pretty and sparklesome.   The folks of the dry washes and creosote brush had done me no harm after all.  My knees didn’t hurt.  In fact, as I unrolled the sleeping bag and stretched out on the aromatic bales, I very much liked my fragile body.  So yeah, I thought to myself, once I got myself back to San Diego, I was officially retiring from hitchhiking in the American Southwest. 

I hwarked at one of the herons flying past, but it ignored me.

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 
A dark-armored bumble 
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 . . .