Saturday, February 22, 2014

Water, Water Everywhere, but Less and Less of It

The snow is melting. It's running in slushy streams down the roads. Small creeks are coming off roofs and wearing away the porches on old houses. If I was a poet I'd write a poem in honor of the water cycle. To me there's nothing that sounds as alive as the slow drip and then roar of the first melt of winter in February, nothing that feels as good as that hint of spring on a sunny day after weeks of snow and arctic vortexes with the radiant heat rising off the bottom of a south facing hill and the icy road that has suddenly and magically turned into a soft silty confection and for the first time you can step along without gritting your teeth and thanking God for your coat wrapped tight. We live here in a moist region despite being on the wrong side of the continent, thanks to the Gulf Stream and the jet stream, the two conveyor belts driven by solar energy and convection that cook the weather for us and give us in an average year about 44 inches of precipitation. In the last two decades, we've been above average for fourteen of the years, which fits the computer models for our climate in a warming planet scenario. Much of the world is not so lucky. The West Coast is facing an unprecedented drought, as is the Southwest and much of the agricultural middle of our continent. I am grateful every year when I have to get down to the compost pile after a snowstorm and wade through the drifts up to my crotch. The deep snow means a wet spring, and the rivers will flow full and the fly fishermen and the kayakers will be happy. But so will our gardena as a good soil under mulch can hold the deep spring melt with an occasional April, May and June shower even through the long dry weeks of August without irrigation. It's one of the things we take for granted, but in the future many will have to cope with growing scarcity as mountain snow packs that provide drinking water and agricultural water around the world continue to thin and recede.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Time and the Weasel

It's my vacation this week and the kids are still in school. I have time. It's the most precious resource in today's world, because there is just not enough of it. Everyone is so overstretched and our expectations are so overblown. That's the cause of the demise of most marriages, according to this interesting article, just not enough time to spend together between couples what with working all the hours to make ends meet and keep up appearances. That's why I feel blessed to have vacations as a public school employee. Plus living in New Hampshire where it's okay to live fairly close to the land and heat an old house with two wood stoves. The stories I've heard so far this winter of people running out of money to pay propane bills, or running out of wood. It takes work to make a marriage last and it takes work to live an old-fashioned self-sufficient life-style. But the one thing they have in common is the element of time.
Yesterday I called a neighbor here to help me with a weasel problem. The little guy had already killed two hens two nights ago during a heavy snow. I went and looked and found no tracks leading in or out of the coop. When I moved one of the nesting boxes, I saw his little white head. This neighbor is a hunter who spends a lot of time in the woods. When he called me back he was in the car on his way home from Manchester and he said he had been looking forward to a pretty boring day when he got home, so he was happy to come over. He'd brought with him  a .22 pistol designed by his friend Bill Ruger. He kept the pistol low behind his car and we stood in the driveway for a long time waiting for my wife to pull away in our car where I'd parked it cross the road with the kids. I don't think he was joking about him being his friend either. This guy is pretty well-connected, like a lot of hunters around here, very Republican. But a great guy. So we went around together and I moved the box out of the way and he popped him, took three shots and then he apologized for taking so many. Typical. It was beautiful white fur. They change over in the winter, just the black tip of the tail left, which was valued by royalty in the old days - ermine. He took it home with him and said he'd skin it. Like time, the beauty of animal hides is something we've lost, but some people hang onto.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Genius and Damn the Expense - Alvarenga, Sochi and Savior

Today I could feel the first hint of spring on the morning walk. Despite a temperature of about 10 degrees, you could feel the sun warming things up and there was even water dripping from the snow packed on the roof.  What a thrill to be able to appreciate the depth of winter and the unique beauty of the pure snow and bright sunshine.
It was my youngest daughter's tenth birthday, and the middle daughter made her a cake which was a nice moment in the development of their relationship, often marked by petty rivalries and minor cruelties. And my oldest son joined us all in the evening sledding on the hill behind the house, the first time in a long time that has happened. The runs took on an extra thrill with him there. Time passes. Tonight he took the car for the first time and went to visit a girlfriend.
I think family life is the great equalizer. I might not have as much money or power as another man, but the joys and bonds of a family that is growing and supporting itself are a treasure that trumps everything. At least I think so, and so there.
We watched the opening ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics on television at a friend's house last night. There has been a lot of talk about the economic foolishness of hosting the games, but I think that for Russia, the pride of accomplishment and the ability to showcase the genius of Russian culture outweighs the downside. Also it's just something we do as a society, throw a giant party every few years and damn the expense.
Speaking of genius, I love Jose Alvarenga, the Salvadoran fisherman who survived 13 months at sea in a dory by feeding on fish and turtles he caught with his bare hands. Genius, which is another word for passion, is the ability to see a way through where others are unable. That's one of the things I tried to explore in Savior, coming out April 18 -- what it takes to survive an extreme situation. For my character, Al Lyons, it's being held in solitary confinement and tortured. Here's an excerpt from the opening pages:

I'm in a hole. I put my ear to the floor and can almost hear the ground water gurgling and working away at the stone. Blackness and the sound of the wind, not any real wind, are all I've got besides the resource of my senses. There's almost nothing to feed on. Slowly the senses will atrophy and without them I will lose my mind. Not my soul. But a soul without a mind must be a tortured thing. Some would say they are the same, but I have proof of the contrary. His name is Samael Chagnon, and where he walks is a ruined place.
Two, three steps and I come to the wall, the cold, wet, rough-plastered wall. Turn around 180 degrees and six steps back the other way. There is no sound, no light, no smell, nothing. But out of this nothing can come everything. Twice a day a vent opens in the wall. Somebody—I can hear the steps going away, the loud ringing of boot heels fading away as a corner is rounded—has slipped in a tray of cold rice and mush. The smell makes my head shake. Once in a while there's a piece of grisly chicken in it. It's almost as good as sex. Then sometimes there are the beams of light shooting through the air over my head. It's a grey light, not daylight, some kind of fluorescence, but it hits my eyes like the glory of God's kingdom and lifts me to some other plane of existence. For a second it's enough to keep me sane.
It is a living hell. The devils that have imprisoned me here, the foot soldiers of Samael's army, they call themselves Los Santos Muertos, expect me to roll over and forget who I am and die. But of course I have the resource, my memories to sustain me. I have to dole them out wisely though, because I don't know how long I will be here. No, it's a mistake to think that. That kind of thought lets in doubt, the pain of desiring light, touch, and mercy. The Dead Saints, Los Santos Muertos, make it a point not to feel any human emotions. They train themselves to seek out pain in themselves and force it on their prisoners. There is no mercy in this underground. No light. Only my sacred soul, but he will come to try and steal even that.
What are the numbers that he seeks? Pi out to the fifteenth decimal silences him momentarily. It's something I learned in college. A party trick. And then I hear his outraged screams of anger. There is the momentary joy of hearing his genuine pain, until the minions, black, twisted, cannibalized or burned-off faces, grimacing masks, are strapping me to the board. I can hear the clanking of it into place above the vat. The water's cold snaps me to attention. This is real, and if I breathe I will die.

I can't die. Ricky needs me. Somewhere above ground in the world of light, oxygen, reason—reality, sweet reality—in the three holy dimensions of Earth lit through by the sun, there is a boy. His mother is dead. I'm all he has. I hold my breath until I am blue. I say that and laugh because there are no colors in this world, only blackness and his voice ordering the men. Something to my ears like a howling, guttural curse, and they swing the board upright.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Real Thing: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Coca-Cola and Us

God save us. Philip Seymour Hoffman died with a needle in his arm and Coke enflamed the idiocracy on the same night with an ad. I can't help but see two sides of the same coin. The failure of the drug war lies deep within our obsession with escape and the urge to commercialize every square inch of human endeavor. Hoffman, an incredibly talented and empathic artist, felt that obsessive need to escape the hum-drum reality of a world grown increasingly global and flat at the same time. And while America was tuning into the annual celebration of hyper-commercial carnival known as the Super Bowl, Hoffman was dialing into his own demise courtesy of little plastic bags of Ace of Spades. No need for moralizing on the suicidal act -- we all share the guilt. Coke obviously is just another drug, and they sell it by pandering to perhaps an even worse, but equally American instinct, the urge to conformity. While the company was clearly throwing down a marker on behalf of so-called "diversity" with its ad celebrating different languages and races under the banner of "America the Beautiful", one could also be appalled at how trite and colorless the world really seems with Coca-Cola.