Sunday, February 25, 2018

Planet Hunting

We have to move. I hate moving. But we’ve got to go. The world is broken. We broke it. We broke the weather. We broke the oceans. We broke the lakes and forests. We broke the animals. We broke the insects. We broke the dirt.
How the hell do you break dirt? I don’t know, but we broke it. And not in a good way. Not in the sense of making furrows or digging graves. We broke the dirt so that it doesn’t work. It’s exhausted. 75 to 85 percent of the world’s topsoil is lost to wind erosion, desertification, urban expansion and overproduction. What hasn’t been blown away has been contaminated by pesticides and chemical fertilizers. The rest is vacant lots and rats and broken glass.
We broke Greenland. We broke privacy and solitude. We broke silence and fog.
We broke the sky, that fantastic overarching dome of clouds and sunsets and the aurora borealis. The jet stream and polar vortices have gone insane. They howl their way around the world like Slinkys on methamphetamine.
The weather is having its revenge. Catastrophic floods in France. Eight years of draught in California. Snow in the Sahara. Iguanas dropping out of the trees in Florida. Puerto Rico slammed into darkness by hurricane Maria. Frost quakes in Ottawa. Cape Town, South Africa, dry as a bone. I don’t think we’ll be getting our deposit back. We’re leaving a mess. Over 76,430 metric tons of radioactive waste. Over 12.7 metric tons of plastic in the ocean.
So where are we going to go? Good question. I’m working on it. I’m looking at some planets. There’s a few possibilities. Let’s take a look.
First, the closest. That would be Proxima b. Proxima b is 1.3 times the mass of Earth and has an orbital period of roughly 11.2 Earth days. That means celebrating Christmas and New Year’s Eve once a week. Can you dig that? Birthdays, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Yom Kippur,  Ramadan and the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival all in the same week.
Another possibility is Alpha Centauri. This is a star system, not a planet, but astronomers put the possibility of habitable planets to be found there at 85%. And it’s only 4.37 light years away. You could probably get there via Greyhound. That is, if Greyhound ever invests in rocket ships and equips them with dinner theatre and plush velvet curtains.
If Greyhound doesn’t work out, there’s a project in the pipeline called Breakthrough Starshot. This is a research and engineering project intent on developing a fleet of “light sail” spacecraft named StarChip, which will be capable of making the journey to Alpha Centauri in twenty or thirty years traveling at a speed between 15% and 20% of the speed of light. You might want to book a seat asap.
I personally like the look of Trappist-1e. This is a solid, almost Earth-sized exoplanet orbiting the ultracool dwarf star Trappist 1 within the habitable zone in the constellation Aquarius. Trappist-1e is very similar to Earth. It has roughly the same mass, radius, density, gravity, temperature, and stellar flux. It has also been confirmed to have a compact atmosphere, though who knows what’s in it. Oxygen, hopefully. Trappist-1e is 40 light-years from Earth, so bring lots of trail mix and popcorn.
Also, the planet has a calculated equilibrium temperature of -16.7 Fahrenheit, so bring lots of sweaters.
There are probably a lot more out there. I can’t find any listings at Zillow, Trulia or Redfin. No need, however, to be discouraged. Astronomers report that there could be as many as 40 billion Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zones of Sun-like stars and red dwarfs in the Milky Way, 11 billion of which may be orbiting Sun-like stars. I’m assuming that Sun-like means like our sun, that big old ball of hot plasma kicking out 1,368 watts per square meter.
I like the sun. I wish I could see it more often, but I live in Seattle, which is generally covered by clouds.
I’ve been meaning to spend more time on a spaceship, but other things intervene. I need to remove the popup drain in the bathtub, reattach the new modem after UPS makes its delivery, and watch some YouTube videos about rocketry and space travel. Things to bring. Things to leave behind.
Did I say I hate moving? I’ll reiterate: I hate moving.
I haven’t moved in 24 years. I don’t even know where to begin. My books, maybe. I can’t leave my books behind. Where in the world am I going to find Shakespeare or Arthur Rimbaud on an exoplanet? Well, Rimbaud maybe. Distinct possibility there. That guy got around.
But Proust, probably not. Proust stayed mostly at home, and mostly in bed. That’s why I like Proust. I like anyone who prefers staying in bed to busying themselves with the affairs of this world, which is mostly connected with making money.
And what about money? What kind of currency do creatures use in outer space? Will there be cash machines on the exoplanets? Will they accept traveler's checks? Who is they? There will be no ‘they.’ Just us.
Can I bring a city? Can I bring Paris? Can I bring Prague, or Dakar, or Chittagong? How do you pack a city? How much Styrofoam will I need? How much bubble-wrap?
I really don’t relish moving. But what are we going to do? Can’t stay here. I like eating. And being warm. And running water and electricity.
Where’s the landlord in all this? Don’t we have a landlord? God or somebody? Can we get somebody to fix the climate and put the polar ice cap back? Can we adapt? Are we done adapting? Can we evolve something useful, wings, or tentacles? A little more intelligence? I think we’d all like that. Maybe we’d all be a little more prudent in the future and not chop down so many trees, destroy so much dirt with industrial farming, and hunt and gather in the old, traditional ways, before civilization, before guns and barbed wire, before microwave ovens and SUVs. When we had candles, and painted horses on the walls of caverns, and buried our dead in the soft, welcoming dirt.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Allegory Of The Bubbles

We’re lost. No one knows what to think anymore. We’re awash in misinformation, propaganda, clickbait headlines and fake news. Beliefs are as numerous as they are outlandish, outmoded, and ludicrous. Subjectivity trumps objectivity. Pundits blame Nietzsche, deconstruction and French intellectuals. Even Noam Chomsky blames French intellectuals. Meanwhile, Trump sits on his toilet tweeting away, Keith Olbermann has weirdly decided that John McCain is his biggest hero, and made apologies to George W. The world is upside down. The left looks to the FBI and CIA for help and guidance, and the right has removed its mask and any pretense to ideology however rickety or faint and begun looting from the government and the country’s resources in broad daylight. “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!”
I like illusions. They’ve been rather a hobby for me. I like cultivating them and believing in them. Or trying to believe in them. One illusion is that life has meaning. Another is that meat grows on trees. That one’s a bit silly, but were it not for a generous helping of cognitive dissonance, I would starve. I hate vegetables.
Nevertheless, as much as I enjoy illusions, I get nervous if I feel I have strayed too far from reality, and nervous in the extreme if I see entire populations of people conform to a delusional ideology or concept or behavior. 
For example, war. Has everyone forgotten about the wars our country has been in since 2003? Where were all the lefties when Obama stacked his administration with pro-war people such as Robert Gates, Susan Rice, Richard Holbrooke and Hilary Clinton? When Obama spent 1 trillion in upgrading nuclear weapons? When Obama escalated drone strikes which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians and children? When Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act into law, legislation that authorizes the indefinite military detention, without charge or trial, of any person (including American citizens) labeled a "belligerent"?  
When Obama launched an unprecedented federal crackdown on whistleblowers?
When Obama supported the Wall Street bailout and brought Wall Street insiders into this administration? 
It’s hard to believe anything anymore. And this is dangerous, because it leads to totalitarianism. “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true,” wrote Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism.  

Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.  

I love that scene in The Matrix when Neo (Keanu Reeves), having just awakened to his actual body in a tub of slime and come unhooked by all the wires attached to his body gets flushed down the drain and resumes consciousness aboard the Nebuchadnezzar, his naked body bristling with electrodes, and asks “why do my eyes hurt?” To which Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) responds: “you’ve never used them before.” “Rest, Neo, the answers are coming.” 
I’ve been feasting on movies about deluded societies.  The Big Short, The Matrix, The Truman Show, Fahrenheit 451, 1984, V for Vendetta, Network, Pleasantville, The Island, Logan’s Run, The Adjustment Bureau, The Day of the Locust, Miracle Mile, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Exterminating Angel, and (although it’s a British TV series and I haven’t seen it yet) Black Mirror
All these movies have one common thread, the spore from which they came: Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave,” which appears in Book VII of The Republic. The story has one basic premise: no one knows reality. 
The story concerns a group of people living in a cave. They have been there since birth. Their legs and necks are chained in such a way that they cannot turn but can only see what is directly in front of them, which is essentially a puppet show of shadows cast by fire on the wall facing the prisoners. The prisoners see only their own shadows or the shadows of one another which the fire casts on the wall. The shadows they see is the only truth they know, the only reality. 
If one of them is released and led toward the mouth of the cave, the glare will blind and give that person pain; that person will not, at first, recognize anything as a truer reality. That person will cling to the belief that the shadows which they recognize are still the only reality. That person cannot yet distinguish the things they now see because their eyes have not yet adjusted to the intensity of the light. Eventually, however, that person will grow accustomed to the light of the upper world and first 

…he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day.  

Last of all he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of it in the water, but he will see it in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate it as it is.  

The Truman Show proceeds in a different manner. In Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” it is not mentioned why an individual is released and led to the mouth of the cave; the entire set-up is hypothetical. So is The Truman Show, but the central character  -  Truman Burbank, played by Jim Carrey -  has a personality, an identity. The intrigue of the movie is in watching Carrey’s character discover anomalies that arouse his suspicion about the reality of his world. 
The tendency to question our reality  -  particularly our social and political reality -  is the natural result of having a high level of cognition. My guess is that microbes and oysters don’t question their reality much. But what do I know? 
And that’s the crux of the problem: what do I know? And how do I know it? 
My world changed the day that my father told me that there is more space than lead in an ingot of lead. That blew my mind. Because if that’s true (and it is: what quantum mechanics reveals is that there is no true “physicality” in the universe, that atoms are made of converging vortices of energy that are constantly popping into and out of existence), not very much of what we believe to be reality is real. It’s more likely to be space. That table? Quarks. That wall? Bosons. 
Pythagoras held reality to be a mathematical code whose core structure was based on the number three. I picture all those numbers dribbling down like rain in The Matrix, especially at that critical moment when Neo reaches enlightenment. 
It’s our sense of our social, cultural and political universe that is the cause of so much insecurity. These aren’t realities to begin with. They’re ideas. We’ve arrived at a point in world history when it’s become absolutely critical that we determine what is real from what is unreal. Those of us who are more prone to anxiety are riddled with doubt: who are my real friends? What will be my fate in a country so consumed by corruption, fraud, and deceit? 
This is why The Truman Show resonates so deeply. In his review of The Truman Show, “The End of Reality,” Douglas Messerli writes:  

Truman’s suspicions seem reasonable because they accord with our own. Even the lying characters, such as Marlon (Noah Emmerich), reiterate to their “friend,” Truman, our shared childhood imaginings, perhaps the earliest stirrings of our suspicious systems: our doubts about our parentage, our imaginings of association with worlds outside our own, and our individual relationships to faith-based hierarchies such as God. If Truman’s disbeliefs have no ground in which to grow, our own full-grown patches of doubt make the character’s occasional wonderments seem absolutely justified. And thus, associating with the stick-figure character with which we’ve been presented, we easily project our own selves into his situation. This, indeed, may be the reason why so many individuals have taken Truman’s delusions on as their own, and have brought them from their encounter with a Hollywood movie into real life.  

Strangely, the movie from which I derive most of my comfort lately, is The Big Short. The mass delusions it portrays are real, and are continuing. 
It begins with a quote by Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
It’s a good quote, apt for the movie, but it’s not from Twain. It appears nowhere in his letters or work. It must be part of the sense of humor of this movie about fraud that it begins with a fraudulent quote.
Ryan Gosling, playing Deutsch Mark mortgage trader Jared Vennett (based on Greg Lippman), delivers the opening monologue:  

In the late '70s, banking wasn't a job you went into to make large sums of money. It was a fucking snooze, filled with losers. Like selling insurance or accounting. And if banking was boring, then the bond department at the bank was straight up comatose. We all know about bonds. You give 'em to your snot-nosed kid when he turns 15; maybe, when he's 30, he makes a hundred bucks. Boring. That is until Lewis Ranieri came on the scene at Salomon Brothers. You might not know who he is, but he changed your life more than Michael Jordan, the iPod, and YouTube put together. You see, Lewis didn't know it yet, but he had already changed banking forever with one simple idea. 

Lewis Ranieri’s “simple idea” was the mortgage-backed security.
Cut to Margot Robbie sipping champagne in a bubble bath, poised as an Olympian goddess in a luxury apartment overlooking Manhattan, who takes us into her confidence and explains Mortgage-backed securities and Subprime loans and then tells us to fuck off as she goes back to her champagne and soap bubbles. 
Mortgage-backed securities and Subprime loans are Wall Street terms for shit. Dog shit wrapped in cat shit.
The magnitude of delusion throughout this movie is stupefying. The levels of fraud and predation strain the limits of the imagination. Steve Carell, playing Mark Baum, an investor based on real-life investor Steve Eisman, delivers a speech toward the end of the movie during a presentation and debate with a character based on an investor named Bruce Miller. “Ok, hi,” he says in a matter-of-fact, somewhat dismissive tone. “Wall Street took a good idea, the mortgage bond, and turned it into an atomic bond of fraud and stupidity that is on its way to decimating the world economy.”
“We live in an era of fraud in America,” he continues. “Not just in banking, but in government, education, religion, food, even baseball… What bothers me isn’t that fraud is not nice. Or that fraud is mean. For fifteen thousand years, fraud and short-sighted thinking have never, ever worked. Not once. Eventually, you get caught, things go south. When the hell did we forget all that? I thought we were better than this, I really did.”
But we’re still there. Still mired in deceit. And look who’s president: the very embodiment of deceit and corruption. 
I derive a strange comfort from watching these movies. I don’t know why. I must’ve seen The Big Short at least five times by now. I will see it again. I believe it’s my feeling of connectedness with these figures as they discover how completely fraudulent the entire culture has become. I feel less alone. 
Another favorite movie is Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. This isn’t a movie about mass delusion so much as personal delusion, a movie in which illusion becomes the reality and reality becomes the illusion. One of my favorite scenes occurs when Owen Wilson, playing Hollywood screenwriter Gil Pender, encounters Louis Buñuel at a party and gives him the idea for his movie The Exterminating Angel about guests who arrive for a dinner party and can’t leave. Buñuel (played by Adrien de Van) reacts with perplexity. “But why can’t they leave?” he keeps asking Gil. “I don’t understand.”
I know just how he feels.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

How The Fish Feel

Coffee permeates my bones. The sound of an oboe soothes my development. I feel like iron. I find the rustic everywhere. For example, my forehead describes agriculture the same way as my forebears, which is to say furrows and duckbilled hats.
A mutation goads what we graze into protein and speech. The hills groan with the burden of their own astonishing reality. I can see it in your eyes: perspective. It steams like a moose. That's why I'm laughing at the road.
I shake a rattle over the abyss of my seclusion. Seclusion is an illusory state, as are wealth and religion, but I need it for thermodynamics and alibis. The migrations remain magnetic, apostrophes of artless opacity, odd little people with astronomical interiors. The road sews its distances in the shade of an oak tree, where they leaven into a fever, a mania for wheels.
I sense the trembling of water under the bridge of what is assumed to be knowledge. The throat collects a sentence with a clarinet in it, then lets it loose on a tongue of fire. I climb into a prophecy oozing the honor of a thousand distant moons. I grab some socks and begin arguing with my feet. If thought is a buffalo painted on rock, expectation is a torch.
I like the vibrations of airplanes. I like the way wax melts on candles. I am fascinated by the trails that disappear in the forest. The colors of Illumination scream inside my anguish while the echoes of parliament elude the subtlety of steam. I perceive the glow of congeniality in the straw of a newborn cynosure.
How is the world perceived? Algebra crushes an emotion into deeper feeling. The equations are sugar, but the differentials are orange. I sift my opinions through a vermilion rain. Hallucinations elevate prospects of chalk. The story of my life is embroidered on a bedsheet, which is how the world is perceived, at least from my viewpoint, which is wedded to other viewpoints, which create a totem of adorable hypnosis.
We live in a trance. Who wouldn’t? I mean, give me a break. Our instincts are embedded in grease. Our being is peppered throughout by pain.
We feel special when we bring our performance into the public sphere, and this helps to push our enthusiasm toward the kind of metamorphism that provides testimony for such events. The wings develop naturally, and the streets of Prague fill with memory. If I fold it a sufficient amount of times, this emotion will fly through the air and land on a decorative representation of Lao Tzu, who knew just how the fish feel.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Sinew Milieu

A dynamic for floating has become goats. Even the sparrows are muscular. The tongue is an engine whose torrents are panoramic. It teases Bohemia. Bohemia gets up and walks away. The tongue continues to defend China. China gets up and walks away. All the cracks in the universe combine to create a sense of distance. The consequence is shovels and a noise produced under a science of meaning.
There are no lines in volume, only strawberries. I beg your bump to ride my words into heaven. There’s a map for my spices but none for my flavor. Please don’t eat me. The decorations are only shiny ideas with no other geography than Costa Rica. Inspiration unrolls my tendencies like a tent and then I have to ponder what it is that becomes vertical in me when I climb into a stimulation. What I cannot find in metaphysics I can find in sawdust. Just give me enough time to sort through the meanings of wood and what it intends to do with the embraces of the sky.
The answer, in a nutshell, is furniture. Everything else is sighs and muttering. I can always grow another mood behind the exploration of apricot. The painter’s tonic isn’t less mauve, but more painting. There’s no need to goad the energy in your eyes, or torpedo reality with asphalt.
I can choose to put a wedge of summer or a box of winter in this sentence, but the testimony will be entirely my own, and will consist of car batteries and popcorn. You can find me at the dump. I will be dressed in a gardenia with a look of pain on my face. I’m diving as deeply as possible into the magic of fluorocarbon. Please be patient. The tube will release its contents sooner if you squeeze it. Be gentle.
Flutter to the control beyond your ears. If it has affections for you, stay. If not, go. Crawl to the door and bang on it hard. It will be opened by an elf named Mutton. It will be natural to slam the door on the ensuing ovoid. The migration will occur in thirty minutes. Bring a friend.
I appear vermilion to my friends, but yellow to my enemies. All that is between is rhubarb. I could snatch a sigh by compelling this. Time sleeps behind my barn.
Life is messy, yes. But I will use life to convey my sense of liposuction. It’s elevated and noble to express what you want, but sometimes feelings heave from your chest in the form of geographies and smell of nipples and mirrors. These are our external wealth. Our inner wealth comes from concertinas, the joy of narrow streets, and dabs of brown which we hurry along into chiaroscuro as if Rembrandt himself were looking over our shoulder and the world was newly furrowed by big shiny ploughs.
We are airports, you and I. Let our planes land. Let our words fill the air with convoys of joy. And let our sinews expand to embrace the accidental nod of radar in our excursions. Lean into the wind. Toss the seagulls a French fry. Whisper hello to René Daumal. And a long goodbye to thrift.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Thing With Feathers

Some weeks ago, I awoke to hear a man on KEXP announce, in a calm, measured voice, that we are all going to die. 
The man is Guy McPherson, an American scientist, professor emeritus of natural resources and ecology and evolutionary biology who taught at the University of Arizona and now resides in Belize. He is a man in his late fifties, tall, affable, easygoing, with thick graying hair and mustache. He is best known for announcing the end of our species, and thousands of other species, in the not too distant future. He has since retired from his academic career. He is free of institutional or political constraint. His move to Belize to live a more simple life off-the-grid allows him the freedom to speak as honestly as possible about our current situation, a dire, doom-laden predicament which he expresses with firmness and a humanitarian appeal to live with even greater intent and keep flossing our teeth. 
It’s an odd but weirdly comforting message. Our imminent doom doesn’t mean giving up and lying around doing nothing, or living recklessly and hedonistically like a rock star on crack cocaine. Nor does McPherson encourage the positive but false project of turning things around via some miracle of geoengineering. That would cause more harm than good. 
But seriously, he hears people say, I have children. They aren’t even in their teens yet. You can’t be serious. Are you saying there’s no hope? No solution at all? We’re all facing imminent death? 
His answer is yes, there is no hope. He doesn’t see hope as a good thing. He sees it as a toxic, misleading enticement, a detrimental form of wishful thinking, what he refers to as “hopium.” Instead, he endorses an outlook and way of living similar to that of Eckhart Tolle. Our time is limited. It always has been. Life, even in normal circumstances, is remarkably short. Live as fully in the moment as possible. Pursue a life of excellence in a culture of mediocrity. Spend time with the people you love. 
Yes, we are doomed, and yes, we have, at best, a few years. But that doesn’t mean surrender to dormancy or wild abandon. It means squeeze every last drop of meaning and joy out of life as you can, while you can. 
I know. It sounds more than a little glib. But a lot of people appreciate McPherson’s calm portrayal of doom. It is refreshing. Talks that deliver messages of doom and gloom and then end on a note of hopeful enterprise  - “here’s what we can do, folks”  -  seem false and calculated to me. 
McPherson underscores his message with an irony: if, hypothetically, we stopped all carbon emissions and greenhouse gases from infiltrating our atmosphere, it would accelerate, not diminish, our predicament. The very pollution that is harming our planet is diffusing sunlight and helping to keep things cool. Without that filtration, the temperatures would rapidly escalate, and so hasten our demise. 
In other words, we can’t turn things around. This is it. Game over. 
Also: it wasn’t just cars and industry that did this. Civilization, in and of itself, is a “heat engine.” Our demise probably began with agriculture. If civilization did not consume energy, then the civilization would be worthless. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. 
The so-called “idea of near extinction,” a phrase which I pulled from McPherson’s Wikipedia page, isn’t so much an idea as a full-blown reality. I wish I could dismiss everything McPherson says, or even some of what he says, as the alarmist, hyperbolic predictions of a man with an agenda of some sort. But I can’t. His information is supported by the data of other scientists, not to mention all the phenomena currently underway. I can’t argue against the ice melting in the arctic and Greenland, the hurricanes that devastated the Florida Keys and Saint Martin and Puerto Rico, the flash draught this last summer in the Midwest which destroyed at least half of the wheat crops, or the smoke-filled skies of last summer here in Seattle.
McPherson always cautions people that he cannot give an exact expiration date, but he does predict that our death will most likely occur within the next five years. That “we” being us, human beings, homo sapiens, the species most directly responsible for the irreparable damage done to this planet. Our home planet.
We are all facing a sixth mass extinction event. Numerous species of plants and animals and highly biodiverse habitats such as coral reefs and rainforest are slated for imminent destruction. There are a number of ways we  - homo sapiens  -  will be eliminated, barring a nuclear holocaust, which would destroy us more abruptly, and perhaps more mercifully, than abrupt climate change; these would be lethal but slower events related to a discombobulated atmosphere: famine, social chaos (plundering, marauding, invasion), wet bulb temperature, in which heat and humidity get so high that we become leaden and delirious as our organs boil in our bodies, or diseases caused by paleobacteria reawakened in the thawed Arctic tundra. None of it looks good. 
Many of these extreme weather events result from a fragmented, disarticulated jet stream. The polar front jet stream, a belt of upper-level winds that for thousands of years have moved in a westerly direction in the tropopause, are what insure enough stability in weather patterns to grow food crops. A solid, expansive polar ice cap is essential to its constancy. But the polar ice cap has been melting at an accelerated rate exceeding that of what scientists have predicted. It won’t be long before it’s the size of a welcome mat. It’s already too small to keep the jet stream together and the ensuing aftereffect has been what climatologist Paul Beckwith terms a “climate casino.” Massive hurricanes, frost quakes, ravaged crops, cataclysmic migrations, high prices and jampacked emergency rooms. 
Symptoms of planetary fever are everywhere. It can be seen in the severe draught in Cape Town, South Africa, in which 3.7 million people will be out of water by this coming April, or the flooding in France, which has submerged millions of homes and crops in the ugly green water risen from the beds of the Seine and Marne rivers. It can be seen in the weather bomb that buried the cities of the U.S. eastern coast and Midwest in snow and brutally cold temperatures. In Boston, pipes froze and cracked. In Florida, iguanas fell out of the trees. 
It can be seen locally in the dramatic decline in bird populations this winter. The most avian life I see during daily four or five-mile run are a few crows, the occasional blue jay, and if I’m lucky, a small flock of robins or a tiny constellation of chickadees. Even the seagulls seem thinned and interspersed, not at all the robust, ubiquitous populations filling the air with that evocative squawk. I’m guessing this has to do with the wildfires of last summer, the smoke drooling down from British Columbia in August, and later that same month, the choking haze from the fires in the Cascades. Our cat had a seizure on each of the two worse days of air pollution. I can’t imagine how it affected the tiny lungs of our avian friends. How many reproduced? How were the eggs affected? How many birds lost their habitat in the Cascades? 
Still, I have a tough time digesting McPherson’s message. I’m not a calm guy like him. My whole life seems to have been fueled by anxiety. Pure cortisol. 
I’m not trying to bargain with anything or anyone here. It’s not that I harbor any illusion about the reality of existence. I turned 70 last summer. Mortality gets real at this age. Parents gone. A few friends gone. Celebrities and rock stars I grew up with, gone. David Bowie for Chrissakes is gone. Death is real. I’ve seen it happen. It ain’t pretty. It’s fucking awful. 
But the whole species!??
So, we’re not special. Despite airplanes, paper, and the Internet. Despite combinatorial algorithms, Oprah Winfrey and feminine hygiene products. Despite Hollywood and Luxor and Albert Einstein. Despite luxury sedans, electricity and acid-washed jeans. We’re not special. No more special than the trilobites and conodonts that went extinct in the Ordovician-Silurian Extinction 443.8 million years ago. 
Nevertheless, it’s hard to get off the hope boat. Everything seems so normal. People go to work, watch movies, play video games, take the kids to soccer games and (most importantly) buy food in the grocery stores. Because there is still food in the grocery stores. This amazes me. Especially when we enter the monument to gross consumption that is Costco. There is so much of everything: meat and cheese and country fresh bread. How could it possibly disappear? 
I’ve never been a big fan of hope. I’ve always slightly distrusted it. It’s an emotion. It tends to occur most intensely when there is no hope. That is to say, when reasons for hope are the thinnest and least demonstrative. When the reason for sustaining an argument is the most chimerical and fragile.
What might help us at this point? God separating the curtain of the sky and looking down and shaking his head with disappointment and sadness but showing us mercy and blowing the polar ice pack into existence again. 
A fleet of extraterrestrial ships coming to rescue us from ourselves. Passing out food and water and healing the sick. These would be Steven Spielberg extraterrestrials, not Ridley Scott extraterrestrials. 
The really malevolent, predatory and merciless extraterrestrials are in government right now. Let’s not get into that.
But no, they’re not really extraterrestrials. Mitch McConnell maybe. I don’t know what they are.
Sauli Niinistö, the President of Finland, said rather famously not long ago that if we “lose the arctic, we lose the planet.” And so that’s where my hope goes lately, that all-devouring, ineluctable emotion: the Internet. Google. YouTube. Anything, or anyone, that can give me recent information about the arctic. Sources I can trust. These would be people like Jennifer Francis, Paul Beckwith, Mark Serreze, Julienne Stroeve, Walt Meier, Ed Hawkins, James Overland, Marcel Nicolaus, Jeremy Mathis, Antoine Séjourné, Florent Dominé, and Denis Sergent. 
Séjourné, who researches geoscience at the University of Paris XI, and Florent Dominé, a researcher at the Franco-Canadian laboratory for the Tukuvik program, are studying the melting of permafrost in the Siberian and Canadian arctic. The permafrost has been frozen for thousands of years; if it melts, it will release colossal amounts of methane and accelerate global warming. 
What I generally find among these scientists is engrossing, scary, and unequivocal. We are in the midst of a planetary crisis. Our species is in big, big trouble.
Hope is the thing with feathers, said Emily Dickinson. “I’ve heard it in the chillest land - / And on the strangest Sea - / Yet – never – in Extremity, / It asked a Crumb – of me.”
I hope there are a few crumbs left in that chilliest land, the Arctic, to feed that thing with feathers, trembling and wet and dying. 

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Sweet Sleigh Of Resignation

I appear on paper to be a messenger. But I have no intent to be a messenger. It's in the nature of words to appear to be a message. That is what words do. That is the doing of words. To convey a message. To bring an awakening into being. To bring being into an awakening. That is a big load of responsibility. Nobody wants that role. It's always the messenger that gets killed. So no. This isn't a message. This is a crashing of waves sloshing among the rocks.
This is me drifting through time. But is that correct? Why ‘through’ time? And how do I know I’m drifting? I know I’m not propelling myself, or throwing myself through time, or rowing myself into time, or thrashing my way through a jungle of time. Why think of time as a thing? Is time a thing? Heidegger liked the term ‘temporality’ (Zeitlichkeit) with reference to our experience of time. Our experience of time is linked with being in the world. “Time,” Heidegger said, “needs to be explicated primordially as the horizon for the understanding of Being, and in terms of temporality as the Being of Dasein, which understands Being.” Sounds a little circular, like the face of a clock, but there you have it. The entire cuckoo.
I know that I have a past and that it keeps lengthening and thickening the older that I become, that I become my Being, or experience my Being, which is Dasein, which refers to the experience of Being that is unique to human beings. Strictly translated from the German, it means “to be there.” I like that.
So, first you’re here, and then you’re here, which is a displacement through time, although not necessarily space, since you might be sitting, or lying on a bed, and space itself isn’t changed. You can go from place to place without affecting space. And since it’s natural to think of traveling through space it’s natural to think of traveling through time.
The structure of my day is sectioned by a morning, an afternoon, and nighttime. This afternoon I decided to run to the Seattle Art Museum. I wanted to get some cards at the gift shop for our 23rd wedding anniversary (February 4th) and Valentine’s Day. Communique, the card shop that seemed to be on Queen Anne Avenue North since the beginning of Currier and Ives, is gone. The cards at Safeway and Bartell Drugs are goopy and mediocre. I wanted something good. The selection at the art museum gift shop is modest, but I found a couple of good ones, Blues and Nest, by Michelle Waldele and Falaises près de Pourville by Claude Monet. I cut through Pike Place Market on the way down to the waterfront and picked up an issue of Le Monde diplomatique. The feature article is “De Varsovie à Washington, un Mai 68 à l’envers”(“From Varsovie to Washington, a May 68 upside-down”), by Pierre Rimbert. It begins with a discussion of Germany, and how discontent with neoliberal economics has led to a deeply fractured political system in which relations with Donald Trump oscillate between the sullen and the execrable. It’s a distressing article. The hostility aroused by decades of neoliberal economics has pushed people in Germany, Hungary, Poland, England, the United States and the Czech Republic toward right-wing ideologies of exclusion and scapegoating rather than a progressive agenda of inclusion and compassion.
“Fervently anticommunist, Christian, stable, conservative to the point of practically eradicating the left altogether from the country’s politics, Varsovie is the natural ally of the United States of Mister Trump,” writes Rimbert, “and a source of growing preoccupation for Germany.”
The article ends on a note of despairing irony: “An authoritarian capitalism against neoliberal capitalism, such will be the ideological alternatives imposing themselves in the half-century since May, 1968. Will it be a May, 1968 in reverse?”
During yesterday’s run I dropped down Third Avenue West to West Roy Street and headed west toward the intersection. I heard two men shouting at one another and focused on two men at the corner of First Avenue West and West Roy Street, a tall young black man with a leashed, shorthaired dog that seemed to be all muscle, and an old man with long white shaggy hair, a colossal bushy mustache and disheveled winter clothing. The two men were within inches of one another and I thought for sure a fight was about to ensue. Each were in such a towering rage that nothing rational had a chance of calming situation. I wondered what I would do, what action I would take if a fight broke out. Would the black man let his dog attack the old man? A little distance grew between the two men as I approached. I hoped the old man would continue moving east as he continued shouting execrations at the black man which, fortunately, weren’t racist. He just seemed massively disrespected in some way. I guessed the black man’s outrage came from living in a neighborhood  -  lower Queen Anne Hill  -  that had a dense population of homeless people, and whose noise or belligerence or mere presence and beleaguered existence was a constant source of stress for him. I don’t know. I had to fill in the blanks with my own speculation. As I passed and continued west I turned around to make sure the two men hadn’t begun fighting. I had no idea what I would have, or could have, done. I’m 70 years old. I always forget that.
February 3rd. R brings home a disturbing letter. It’s from the Director of Sales at Chaquita announcing a disruption in the supply chain of bananas due to “external conditions beyond our control.” “Temperatures have been as far as 10℉ below normal for several weeks in Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico slowing banana growth, production, and yield. Excessive rainfall and flooding in Costa Rica and Panama have damaged plantations, infrastructure, roads, and bridges while high winds and waves have resulted in shipping delays.”
This isn’t good. Not at all. It’s a sure result of abrupt climate change, specifically the melting of the arctic ice at a rate faster than scientists predicted, which is raising all sorts of havoc with the jet stream and weather globally. Severe drought in Cape Town, South Africa, and flooding in the regions around the Seine and Marne rivers in France.
I watch Paul Beckwith point out the wildly disorganized wind currents on our planet due to the shrinkage of the arctic ice cap which acts as a stabilizing force on the jet streams. He goes to a site called Earth Nullschool which is an interactive map of current wind, weather, ocean, and pollution conditions based on data from a number of computer modules such as a GSF (Global Forecasting System) and OSCAR (Ocean Currents Data). Here you can see in real time the deteriorated state of the jet stream and the havoc its causing, what Beckwith likes to refer to as a “climate casino.”
You can’t grow and harvest crops in a climate casino. Crops means food. Things like wheat and bananas.
I would like, very much, to get off this planet. I wish I could be a modern-day Noah and put every living thing aboard a colossal spaceship and set us adrift in space while we all (camels, people, microbes, kangaroos) snooze peacefully in suspended animation until our sensors find a habitable planet. Unfortunately, I’m neither in possession of a spaceship nor a way to put us all in suspended animation.
Sometimes all you have in this world is a sweet sleigh of resignation.

Thursday, February 1, 2018


Two tugs in gray mist out on the sound. I’m soaked to the bone. I see puddles everywhere muddled with the constellating splitter-splatter of rain. I pass a blue sedan with a bright yellow Alaska license plate, the motto at the bottom of the plate asserting “The Last Frontier,” two diminutive people inside staring at smartphones, the driver wearing big black rimmed glasses, the strong smell of marijuana emanating from the car.
Home again, sitting on the couch typing this, a jar of mustard appears on the coffee table, a sign that dinner is approaching, and that it will most likely turn out to be mashed potatoes and bratwurst, which indeed it is.
After dinner R and I watch Four Weddings and a Funeral, which is always a lot of fun, although Hugh Grant keeps looking younger with each viewing, which is disconcerting. His agony toward the end of the film, when he is deeply conflicted over whether to go through with the wedding or find some expedient way out, having just discovered that Carrie (Andie MacDowell) is divorced and available and appears to be equally in love with him, is riveting. What an ingenious idea to have his brother (Welsh actor David Bower, who really is deaf, and has a degree in the Theatre of the Deaf) interrupt the ceremony with sign language, and require Charles to translate it for the wedding guests, which  -  when asked if he is in love with someone else  - he timidly mutters “I do,” which culminates immediately with a punch in the face delivered by the bride (Anna Chancellor), which sends Charles hurling to the floor. We see him sprawled in the aisle as the camera rises.
12:30 p.m. Thursday, January 25th. Virginia Woolf’s birthday. I go for a run. I get to the intersection of West McGraw Place and West McGraw Street as a white-haired old lady goes through the crosswalk at 90 mph in a SUV without seeing me. If I hadn’t prudently stopped, I wouldn’t be here writing this.
The day before, a woman with two toddlers blocked the sidewalk while she chatted with a young man in a suit. I stood within inches of them, running in place, and finally had to shout “excuse me” so that they’d move aside to let me through.
Never a fan of Margaret Thatcher, her statement that “there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families,” has never rung so true.
It’s unfortunate, but the commons is gone. There are only banks and private property.
I look out on the sound from the crest of the hill on 8th Avenue West. It’s mostly a whole lot of gray, deep gray, light gray, whispers of gray, disclosures of gray, depositions of gray, allegations of gray, with here and there flashes of silver.
3:00 p.m. I watch the French news. Flooding is extensive. The Seine and the Marne are both engorged with water. Three departments near Paris, Le Val-d’Oise, Les Yvelines and L’Eure, are on orange alert. At Marsang-sur-Seine, a commune in the Essone department in Isle-de-France, also known as the Parisian Region, the river has left its bed. People stomp around in their houses trying to salvage what they can from the ugly green water inundating their bedrooms and kitchens and living rooms, refrigerators afloat, libraries lost, furniture upturned and floating like buoys. Shops and businesses are knee-deep in water. In Paris, two men are stuck on their barge and helped to dry land by the police.
The Seine rose by nearly 29 feet above its normal level in 1910 when it flooded Paris. People were rescued from two-story windows. A flood of that enormity today would destroy the underground rail system and sewage system. The Seine is expected to crest at about 16 feet above normal on Saturday.
I find it strange that no mention is made of climate change. I do not hear the words “changement climatique.”
I wonder if there has been any mention of the flooding in France on the American news. I haven’t watched American news in years. It’s too sickening. The few glimpses I’ve had of what passes for news on TV has occurred while in staying at hotels or airports where giant plasma TVs are as ubiquitous and inescapable as greenhouse gas. The giant words and flashy icons and ribbons of events happening elsewhere running at the bottom of a screen occupied by handsome men and beautiful women with toothy smiles and witty repartees reveals a bright shiny journalism of everything but the news.
So I avoid it. Except for weird stuff. I like finding weird stuff at Google News. The casual disclosure that a potentially hazardous asteroid will pass near planet Earth during the Superbowl, or the neatly packaged revelation that researchers believe that a unique chemical composition in the deep-water Alaska green sponge could kill cancer cells and lead to treatments for pancreatic cancer and mesothelioma. The disheartening factoid revealing that (according to a 2017 survey from Charles Schwab), locals say you need to have a net worth of over one million dollars to be financially comfortable in San Francisco. The more reassuring notification that the Brooklyn Public Library is sponsoring a twelve-hour philosophy marathon. “Living in our modern dystopia is exhausting, which is why Brooklyn is throwing an all-night spiritual reboot,” says Eva Kis. The event will take place between 7 p.m. on January 27th to 7 a.m. on January 28th. Yeah Brooklyn Library!
Which, unfortunately, is 2,843 miles from Seattle. If I begin walking at a moderate pace now, it will take 937 hours to get there. I’ll be late, but full of philosophy.
And speaking of philosophy, tonight in Gaston Bachelard, I discover roots. The sinuosity of roots, the earthiness of roots, the subterranean mystery of roots.
The root is a living death. Its subterranean life is acutely felt. The soul knows that this is a long sleep, a languishing in the timelessness of earth. But if the tree is cut, the root finds sustenance to renew it. The fusion of death and life are seamless among the entanglement of roots.
The dynamic of the root is at once a driver of life and a seeker of death. It pierces the moldering of the subterranean realm while carrying to the sky the nutriments of earth.
The root is a marriage of contradictions; it is both supple and hard. It is a dialectic of contraries: with a swift reversal of the mind the roots may be seen as branches in the ground while the branches of a tree may be seen as roots delving into the sky.
The word ‘root’ itself is an inductor of coiled associations. “I hold a stalk in my hand,” writes Virginia Woolf. “I am the stalk. My roots goo down the depths of the world, through earth dry with brick, and damp earth, through veins of lead and silver. I am all fibre. All tremors shake me, and the weight of the earth is pressed to my ribs. Up here my eyes are green leaves, unseeing. I am a boy in grey flannels with a belt fastened by a brass snake up here. Down there my eyes are the lidless of a stone figure in a desert by the Nile.”
The imagination is a tree: It has the integrating virtues of a tree. It is both root and branch. It lives between earth and sky. It thrives in the dirt and flourishes in the wind. It creates a universe of birds and limbs and leaves. It connects us to our distant past. It draws sustenance from the sky. It feeds on the light of the sun.
Yesterday in the late morning there was a great hullabaloo of chains saws and men shouting. The owners of the house next door to us chopped the Ponderosa pine down that had been growing for many years sideways from the rockery separating their house from our building. We admired this tree. It made me happy to look at it. There aren’t many Ponderosa pines on this side of the Cascades. It’s a tree that prefers the more arid regions to the east, towards Leavenworth and Ellensburg. Now it’s gone. There is a stump left. We assume the tree had become a problem for the tenants of the house. Or the owners got tired paying crews to clean the needles up. Maybe the tenants wanted extra space for their cars. It’s painful to look at it. That big stump form which fountained the robust thick trunk and branches of a thriving sideways pine.
We worry that if they remove the trunk and its roots there will be continuous erosion and cracks in our driveway.
We also want to leave this city and its fussy, destructive rich.
We think a lot about Walla Walla.
According to the Sahaptin language, Walla Walla means many waters. The Columbia and Snake Rivers are close by, and the Walla Walla river, which travels through Umatilla County in Oregon and empties into the Columbia at Wallula Junction, a few miles south of Kennewick and Pasco. I love that country. The smell of sage, the rolling hills, the big basaltic rocks, landforms chiefly caused by erosion and deposition by jökulhaups, a glacially caused megaflood that occurred fifteen thousand years ago. This is the type of country that puts me at ease. The preferred habitat of cowboy rascals and Fauve colors. It’s an expansive landscape, full of Ponderosa and Lodgepole Pine.
I watch a YouTube video of climatologist Paul Beckwith show slide after slide, graph upon graph, of statistics concerning the melting and shrinkage of the polar ice cap. Arctic sea ice has been thinning and shrinking rapidly, far more rapidly than scientists predicted. It’s got me thinking. It’s got me worrying about food. Water. Suddenly life on this planet is no longer anything I take for granted. I’m acutely aware of its fragility and position in the solar system, the so-called Goldilocks Zone. I don’t have a spaceship. I sure wish I did. I’d be stocking it right now with cans of soup and pasta and meat sauce. Flashlights and maps. And I’d get out a map of the universe and look for the nearest habitable planet. A good Ramadan. Or Motel Six. Somewhere out there in Proxima Centauri. And I’d be sad. I love this planet. I have roots here. Deep affections and cannot look a crow in the eye without feeling a bond, an affiliation. We share a gray sky. And the bright moon in the web of my fingers.