Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Played with the kids after dinner in the living room last night. We were telling each other's fortunes, pretending to read palms.
"You're going to flunk out of high school, be really bad at everything and then work at McDonald's. Then you'll live in a dumpster and move to Nevada where you'll discover a new source of energy and be rich and live in a boat until you're 92 when you get mauled by a panther and die." Michael forecasting his sister's life was quick, certain and big on disaster.
I tried the more traditional route, numbers of kids, lifeline, career, a lot of romance for the girls and motorized toys for Michael. But I kept saying they'd all live near the ocean, preferably somewhere warm where they would invite their parents to visit every year. Then I realized the odds of them living near the ocean were just increased, as scientists are predicting a 2 meter rise in sea levels by 2100.
I'm thinking how desperate this forecast, this real life prognostication is. What happens when Bangladesh goes under is not just lost beach frontage; it's not just the extinction of human and animal life and untold misery of refugees. It's not even just genocide. We don't have a word for the extent of criminality this event implies. It dwarfs colonialism, slavery, all previous inhumanities. What could be worse than condemning entire swaths of the planet, entire nations of people and entire species of animal and plant life to death? I think even the notion of inter-generational equity, which is the result of struggling with how to deal with the implications of what is happening, falls short of the mark.
And then there's the front page headlines made by hacked emails showing the animosity of some climate scientists towards their colleagues, termed skeptics by the press. Many of them are worse than skeptics. Just like the tobacco industry did for many years, paying off so-called scientists to produce reports diminishing the health impacts of nicotine and tobacco smoke, the oil industry has for years now been attempting to "spin" the science to their advantage. And who can blame anybody for feeling a little bit of anger. Scientists are human, too. And sure there must be disagreement on many aspects of the science, the levels of magnitude of change, etc. Certainly there are many variables to consider. But there is one fact that is not variable. Like the hedgehog we must know one thing well in order to survive. Our children only get one planet.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Reflections on a Shooting Spree

"But on the whole, the life of Ivan Ilich now flowed the way he felt his life should flow -- easily, pleasantly, respectably." The Death of Ivan Ilich, Leo Tolstoy

In this portrait of a stolid Russian magistrate, Tolstoy tried to show the way we brick ourselves off from human feelings as a way of advancement, the way middle class life tends to anesthetize the pain until we are numb, all in the name of comfort. Ilich was a success, but it was at the cost of any meaningful relationships, including with his family. Of course he lived in a time and a country that was very different from ours, but was it? We pride ourselves for our meritocratic ways and our freedoms, but the aim, still, is to insulate ourselves from suffering, to escape the hoi polloi, to live in walled-off compounds of luxury and security, to insure ourselves and our families against calamity, to innoculate ourselves from disease and catastrophe, and to vote into power leaders strong enough to protect us from the enemy hordes, the other that wants to take it away, that rages at the gate. In short, we want our cake and eat it too. We want to be strong, free, comfortable, and yet we want to live in solidarity with the promise of Emma Lazarus. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses. We want to be rich and we want to be popular. Somehow we straddle the fence, offering the world the two-faced specter of our political shufflings, here George, there Barack, not sure ourselves what country we live in. Is it red, blue, something in between? It takes faith, sometimes a lunatic faith to keep faith with the old red, white and blue, and there is pain, the pain that is expressed in the lunatic, murderous shooting rampage of an Army doctor that reminds me of a character in a tragic Russian novel.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Striking the Balance

As easy as breathing, the in and out rhythm, there and back again, over and over. Or swinging: parents push on the playground and then the children learn that by pumping their legs they can get as high as they can, higher and higher. Until finally the older ones they're ejecting, jumping at the highest point of the arc to see who can get the farthest, flying off into space until gravity brings them down with a dull thud in the wood chips.
We're entering the dark side of the year, the diastole half of the beat of life, when the short days and long nights give rise to reflective taking of bearings and anxiety about the end game. The forest looks naked but somehow more mysterious, the grey hardwoods like clouds mingling in a valley with the deep green pines, all suffused with mists. I'm always hungrier, my dinners suffering a lack of portion control that I justify as seasonally driven. I crave meats and thick, rich sauces. This is the animal part of the brain, remembering shortfall, famine, scarcity and cold. As we evolved we began to hoard other prizes, and now, when hardship means having an old car and losing face in the parking lot, we wonder how to strike the right balance. George Bush promised we fulfilled duty when we shopped, and we all know the malls fill up this time of year. But call it residual guilt, there is a gnawing sense that we must be called to do more. Produce or perish. Those who believe in eternity want to produce a higher self through prayer or good deeds, those who don't still believe that work is the lot of all humanity. My tenant, Chris, has been out of work since July. He was a fork lift driver with MacLanes, the warehouse chain that handles all the Walmart traffic in northern New England. I saw him yesterday when he came over and he'd grown a belly and said he was hoping to be taken back on for some seasonal shifts.
"It must be tough," I said. God knows I've been there before.
"Oh, yeah. I'm looking forward to having a purpose," he said.
Unemployment, like the winter, has a rise and fall. If only we knew how to strike the right balance, as easy as breathing, or children swinging.