When Jason Kottke of Kottke.org went on sabbatical for seven months I missed his blog terribly, so I was happy he returned this month with a long list of the media he consumed during his time away. Lots to sift through: books, movies, games, music, tv series, even a couple of restaurant recommendations, with a line or two of commentary for each, a rating. Worth a look, if you’re in need of fresh consumables.
It’s mid-December as I write this, nearly the end of 2022. I don’t do year-end lists or anything so ambitious as that, but I will note that I read 52 books this year. And there are still two weeks to go. Favorites? Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory, and Liberation Day, a collection of (very strange) short stories by George Saunders.
I have one last book in my audio queue, and one on my nightstand, which happens to be Haruki Murakami’s Novelist as a Vocation. I thought that one might set the stage for 2023.
When I was younger (so much younger than today) I thought I might become a novelist. I’ve never really abandoned that notion, nor have I pursued it with any real vigor. (Need I remind you that the most popular post on this site is a ten-year-old riff titled, “Lazy. So?”). I do have several unfinished manuscripts laying about, on hard drives and in drawers. I’m thinking I might poke at them in the new year.
Do I detect a bit of ambition after all? Perhaps.
I’m also returning to the piano after a year-long hiatus. Wish me luck.
Meanwhile, I’ll let this here blog sleep in heavenly peace until I have something of consequence to share.
Enjoy the Solstice, dear friends, the shift of the seasons, the slow nights, the long now. Check out Jason’s list. Maybe you’ll find something to set the stage for your own 2023.
As one half of a shared-parenting divorced couple, I have some experience with solo holidays, those years when the kid was with the ex and I just wasn’t feeling it, all the gathering and festivities and so forth. Rather than try to create some alternative for the sake of the season, I would generally just have a day or two to myself, doing what I wanted, which was often nothing much at all.
A movie, a walk by the river. Then maybe another movie.
On those holidays when I was solo, I didn’t share my lack of plans with anyone until after the fact, because when people learn you’re alone for The Holidaystm they get all sad for you and you have to reassure them that no, no, it’s really okay. And then they seem to feel a need to include you in their own holiday stuff, and bless their generosity of spirit, but no. Those inclusions are awkward and uncomfortable and whenever I’ve accepted them I’ve felt compelled to demonstrate what a good time I was having, which isn’t the way having a good time works.
Now I say, “No, thanks, I’m really looking forward to being with no one at all,” in a way that doesn’t make me sound like a complete misanthrope but still gets the point across.
This year, though, with the kid doing a Friendsgiving out of town, I did make plans. I said yes to an invitation for dinner with a group of friends, bought the ingredients to bring a salad of greens and pears, glazed some walnuts to put on top of it and looked up what sort of dressing I might want to to pour over it (a balsamic vinaigrette with a bit of raspberry.) I was looking forward to it. The salad. The friends.
And then I got a cold. A sore throat. A sniffle. Congestion.
Once upon a time I would have taken a Sudafed and motored on through. These are not those times. As another friend who had to bow out because of the flu said, “I wouldn’t stay home if I didn’t like y’all so much.”
So it’s the cat and me this Thanksgiving, along with this lovely salad. Maybe a movie. And a walk by the river. Then maybe another movie.
After spending election night at my radio station babysitting the live feed for NPR’s election coverage so that I might add the hourly legal ID and break in with any local upsets should they occur (spoiler: they didn’t), I came away with little more than a sense of relief that it was over.
It would take a while to tally everything up, during which time we would be treated to (useless) speculation about whose messaging succeeded and what it all meant, but the clock had run out on the voting part, at least. We could now return to our precarious lives without the ever-present electioneering adding to the crazy.
But no. We could not.
Because elections in the U.S. are now the show that never ends (Welcome back, my friends!)
In an instant, artillery is re-positioned and even as the returns come in, a fresh wave of grievance pours forth. Power struggles commence and agendas are announced that include none of the issues that were the focus of campaigns. Inflation? Yesterday’s news. Today we’re promised investigations and impeachments and a whole lot of wtf.
There will be a run-off for a Senate seat in Georgia, between a man who seems pretty decent and one who… doesn’t.
And of course the season wouldn’t be complete without a reminder that the former president still intends to be crowned king in 2024. Cue the handwringing on the part of those who’d kissed his ring for all these years and now find him a bit of a drag. Something something dogs and fleas.
The people in charge do not want to make the future better or easier or more enjoyable. They want to make more money.
She’s writing about Ticketmaster — which has a monopoly on major venue concert ticket sales and doesn’t care how awful their system is because, monopoly! — but she could be writing about pretty much anything: the health care system, the legal system. Politics.
If I had to guess I’d say the Republicans’ big takeaway from the midterm elections is not that the American people have voted against the worst of the crazy and would like abortion to be legal, so maybe it’s time to do some soul searching. Heh. No. The takeaway is that states in which they achieved the greatest successes were those that relied on voter suppression and gerrymandering and cruel political stunts that delighted their base.
It was so popular that it’s been updated with the news that the list is to become a book, one that will include selections from a previous list of 68 bits (shared on the occasion of his 68th birthday), and some new bits written especially for the print edition. The original 103 bits in the more recent post (and the 68 bits in the earlier one) have been reduced to a half-dozen teasers, bringing to mind something about a horse and a barn door, but I’m sure there are reasons.1
“These are not laws,” he wrote. “They’re like hats. If one doesn’t fit, try another.”
I like lists; I enjoyed these. Here’s one bit I tried that fit especially well: “The chief prevention against getting old is to remain astonished.”
Setting aside the quibble that the only reliable prevention against getting old is to die young, I am inspired by the idea of astonishment.
Astonishment is cousin to surprise, only more so. Here’s an example: I was surprised when Donald Trump won the Republican nomination for president in 2016. I was astonished when he was elected. I remain astonished that people would consider voting for him again.
So, no moss on me, I guess.
But here’s the thing: it takes effort to maintain a capacity for astonishment. It takes effort to hold sufficient space for it, to acknowledge that we don’t know what we don’t know even when we’re pretty sure we do and that no one would ever… oh, look, they just did.
Holding space takes energy. It also leaves us vulnerable. And if we’re (unpleasantly) surprised one too many times, who can blame us for deciding it’s just easier/safer/saner to withdraw from the whole exercise. Let ourselves become a little more jaded. A little less willing to be surprised by anything, let alone astonished.
A little old.
I don’t know about you, but my own energy is in short supply these days. I never had COVID, so it’s not Long Covid. Maybe it’s Long Capitalism. Why not? The professional managerial class that pulls the economic levers is all about mitigating surprise, flattening out experience in the name of efficiency. Not for nothing those quarterly reports and projections.
Which is to say, if we wish to remain astonished and open to the world, we might benefit from a certain disengagement with the all-consuming casino economy.
There are other economies, of course. Economies of place, of mutual aid, of extended families and families of choice, of community support and radical inclusion. Gift economies, cooperative economies. They’re all around us. We’re in them now, we just have a hard time seeing them. The glare from the casino overwhelms, flattens, distracts, enervates.
And after it rains, there’s a rainbow And all of the colors are black It’s not that the colors aren’t there It’s just imagination they lack
We might want to start looking for those other economies, consider that it’s okay to grow old in one or more of them. And also, you know, fuck the casino. At the risk of mixing metaphors, nothing says we have to go down with this ship.
For the past two weeks the (only) bathroom in my house has been torn up so that some very old plumbing could be replaced, a process that created a bit of disturbance in my home life. Scheduling with the plumbers, coordinating with the contractor, taking time off work, then more time, hoping they wouldn’t find anything else in need of repair as they went along.
And, of course, wondering how I was going to pay for all of it — which is what we’re all doing do these days, is it not? The wondering, the calculating, the gratitude for days when we don’t have to drive anywhere, don’t have to buy anything, need neither furnace nor air conditioner to keep things comfy, and feeling guilty for wanting things to be comfy when there is drought and flooding and fires and hurricanes and all that going on.
The final bill came in at less than I’d expected. That was a nice surprise.
It was followed by another surprise, though, this one not so nice, when I learned that a project I’d been developing since March at my radio station was not going to be included in the new fiscal year budget. But! They were still very excited to see what I could come up with, given no additional hours or compensation to actually, you know, do the work.
So I’m moving into autumn with six months of oh-well behind me and a season of now-what stretching out ahead. Which isn’t great, but it’s freeing. And let’s be honest. Six months of poking at a project that could have been up and running in six weeks is a good indication that something was amiss all along.
Was it me? Yes, it was me. I was amiss. Remiss. Something.
Though institutional plodding bears some responsibility. So many meetings. So many discussions. So much revisiting. I miss my café days when I could decide on Tuesday to put something on the menu and have it there on Wednesday.
Not that I miss food service. I do not. What I miss is the opportunity to be nimble. My employer — my entire industry — is a lot of (mostly good) things, but it is not nimble. Which is why I’m not hugely disappointed my project was scuttled. Just a little… bummed. Yes. Let’s go with bummed.
There are other projects.
There’s this here blog, for instance.
Meanwhile, mums are appearing on porches, pumpkins, too, for the early adopters. Perhaps I can stop mowing for the season. That’s reason to rejoice.
That, and I’ve got a functional bathroom once again. Two cheers, at least, for that.
There is no ground, said Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, that is the good news. The bad news is that we are falling, falling, never to land. As if in a dream.
Is it a dream? ¿Quien sabe? (“Who knows?” and also, “Who cares?”)
I just finished reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility, with its loopy timeframes and its suggestion that reality is something other than what we’ve been led to believe. Which is likely true, regardless of what we believe, or what that “something other” might be. (¿Quien sabe?)
Raise your hand if you’re (still) waiting for things to get back to normal. Heh.
The wheel is turning. The wheel has already turned. The wheel has never stopped turning.
Imagine you are a red colobus monkey. Imagine you are a passenger pigeon. A North American bison. Imagine you are Sephora toromiro, the flowering tree that once filled Easter Island. The means by which you sustain yourself — the mycorrhizae of relationship and symbiosis — are disappearing, have disappeared. The turning is beyond your control.
But look: the garden needs weeding. The cat wants to play. This week I’ve had to tear up my bathroom floor to replace 70-year-old drains. The daily-ness is the tether, the ongoing, ever-present neediness of now.
Truth: the future has always been a burden. And every best-of-plans has a never-saw-it-coming.
Bones become porous in the absence of gravity. Density is lost. Hollowed out, like the bones of birds, so perhaps we might one day fly.
A month after a tree fell on my house, a tree fell on my neighbor’s house, as if this were now a commonplace thing, trees falling down on people’s houses.
It’s disconcerting to confront a thing that is where it ought not be. Something that was once one way is now another, and the sense of discontinuity is like falling in a dream, knowing you are falling, knowing that the ground both is and is not somewhere down below.
There is something in us that resists the evidence of the altered now, even when what used to be was not at all what we wanted, was indeed far less lovely than a tree that no longer shades the house. I am at my desk and look up to see a man standing at the bottom of the stairs. There is no man at the bottom of the stairs. What I see is an after-image, a ghost. And yet I steel myself for whatever interaction is coming, before realizing I am still dreaming. Still falling.
Yesterday I spent time on the Abandoned America website, scrolling through images of places that are no longer one thing but are not yet something else. Shopping malls and amusement parks and roadside attractions re-absorbing into the body of the world. I’ve heard people denigrate these images as ruins porn. Yet nobody calls it ruins porn when we visit the Roman Coliseum. We call that cultural enrichment.
Maybe we’re too close, maybe it’s too soon. We walked through those malls. We worked in those factories. It wasn’t great. It’s just what was, and now it isn’t anymore.
There is a tree lying across the roof of my house, a fairly large tree that came down yesterday in the early hours of an overnight in which the temperatures never dropped below 80 degrees. I felt it when it hit the house, the shudder waking me from an already restless sleep.
I went downstairs, noticed shadows outside where there ought not be any, the silhouette of a thin branch floating in front of my kitchen window.
When the day grew light enough I went outside to have a look. I was surprised to find relatively little damage to the house, at least as far as I could tell from peering up through the branches. Gutters and soffits, sprung from their careful fittings, lay buckled beneath the thick torso of the fallen tree, but the roof itself appeared to be intact. Though I won’t know for sure until the tree service arrives and the tree is lifted and removed, something that might not happen for days.
Or longer. The last time I needed to hire a tree service it took three months for the work to get done. But that work didn’t involve anything so hazardous as a tree on my roof, so perhaps this time will be different.
I spent the day on the phone, making calls to line up a tree service, leaving messages, waiting for people to call me back. I filed a claim with my insurance company, and later in the day I talked to a claims adjuster, who wasn’t rude, exactly; he just sounded jaded and indifferent to my situation. But maybe it was me, edgy and hyper-aware of the precarity and randomness of the moment, knowing that the tree could have fallen differently, resulting in a situation far more catastrophic than what I was facing.
Most of the time I feel safe in my house. It’s been a reasonably reliable container. But things have happened here, and I am not always at ease within it.
The cellar has flooded, the roof has leaked. Et cetera.
For the past few days we’ve been under a heat advisory, told to stay inside if we can, assuming we have air conditioning, which I do, and for which I am grateful, even though it comes at the expense of more carbon rising into the stratosphere. (How to square that circle, I wonder.) And so I’m spending most of my time in this space, under the weight of the tree on the roof, reading, typing to you, waiting for the next thing to happen.
Did the heat bring down that tree, a hackberry whose rotting interior is now exposed for all to see? I am no arborist, but I suspect the stress from year after year of summers grown too hot for this particular species played some part in its demise, even if it was just to give increased comfort and quarter to the burrowing insects that have been feeding on its core all this time.
“I know what I value. I don’t know what I need.” Says Heather Havrilesky, in conversation with Jennifer Louden on the Create Out Loud podcast. I get it. I feel that way sometimes. But for today, at least, I know what I need: a few magic words that will persuade all of my (Republican) representatives to re-enact the assault weapons ban, and leave trans kids — and library books, and people with a uterus — alone.
Also: something to take to the potluck next week. (It’s a “snacks and summer cocktails” thing. I’m thinking this might do. And this.)
Like you, I have thoughts on the state of things. We were short on hosts this week at the station, so I sat through more npr news and midday public affairs programming than was probably good for me. I’m trying to hunt for what podcaster Andrea Scher calls “small wonders” in the midst of the enormity it all. But first:
The cost of doing business: Like the 3500 people who die each month in car crashes so we can continue with our happy motoring, the mass murder of school children and grocery shoppers and church-and-synagogue-members and concert-goers and night-clubbers is now “the cost of doing business” in America. People actually say shit like this. Out loud.
I do not use Twitter. This week at work, I was asked to post a link on the stations’ Twitter feed to a story my colleague had produced. It was “my” first tweet. I felt momentarily embedded in the Great Link. Then… nothing. “The amount that Twitter omits is breathtaking; more than any other social platform, it is indifferent to huge swaths of human experience and endeavor. I invite you to imagine this omitted content as a vast, bustling city. Scratching at your timeline, you are huddled in a single small tavern with the journalists, the nihilists, and the chaotic neutrals.” Robin Sloan,”The Lost Thread”.
What I’m reading: The Zookeepers Wife. I was looking for a good story, something not too hard to handle, as I’m a bit, um, fragile these days. (Surprise!) Anyway, someone recommended this book. I went into it thinking, it’s about a zoo! How wrenching can it be? I had no idea.
What I’m listening to: too much npr, not enough Bill Evans.
So much has been written this past week about abortion rights and the leaked Alito opinion, with responses far more comprehensive than I could hope to create, so I’ll keep my commentary to one small point of fact, shared in light of the sudden urgency among Democrats that WE MUST DO SOMETHING NOW.
The full personhood of women remains contingent in this country, dependent on the good will of those we elect to office and the Court of Nine — really, five — who decide whether we are flower pots or people. Rectifying this has never been a priority. How do we know it’s not a priority? 250 years is how we know.
Americans by a large majority favor legal access to abortion, just as we favor affordable health care for all, affordable child care, paid parental leave, and a living minimum wage. We don’t get what we ask for. Instead we get forever wars and culture wars, a bloated military budget, and a wringing of the hands on the part of Democrats whose only unified response to the situation is to call on voters to “elect more Democrats.”
Yes, of course, I consider the alternative, and yes, I will continue to vote for the ones who seem to not hate women, hate children, hate the poor and people of color quite so much. But I’m tired of it. Tired of issues of major consequence being reduced, time and again, to messaging for the midterms.
Fifty years of post-Roe inaction is a message, too.
My month-long hiatus extended nearly half a year (surprise!) as I wandered through a wet, gray, Midwest winter and on into early spring, when none of the news was good (really, is it ever?), despairing of pretty much everything. I did work on some half-assed hand-sewing (that pile above), which got me through, (still gets me through), and I finally dared a couple of dinner gatherings at friends’ homes, which allowed me to see that the world had not entirely gone to shit, not while Linda makes her most excellent cherry pie. I’m still on the fence about restaurant dining, but I’ll sit around in people’s kitchens now, which is a vast improvement over a year ago, right?
I’ll have a more substantial post to share with you soon. Consider this a gentle tap at your door, me on the porch, offering a plate of cookies.
_ _ _ _ _
Speaking of a year ago, this one’s from last May, and I find myself returning to it again and again: Alex Steffen on discontinuity and the climate crisis and how one of its grimmest aspects is “its transapocalyptic nature. That is, just how much of the world can thrive relatively well while enormous numbers of people suffer.”
What I’m reading: I’ve gone full-on Murderbot Diaries, blazing through the entire Martha Wells series, some via print, some on audio. These books are so full of angst and tech-speak and ethical quandaries and other-worldliness (literally) there is no brain-space left for (my own) despair. Which is to say, exactly what I need right now
So much keeps happening. Much of it passes without need for comment, because what is there left to say? Our laws are as broken as everything else. Also: we don’t know how things will end, because nothing is ever really over.
Since this is my last post before I go on my December break (which, let’s face it, could go on a bit longer, knowing me), I’m sharing a lot today. Take what you need, come back again and take a little more.
Sonali Kohlatkar writes about “social spending” vs. “military spending.” Over the last several weeks the major U.S. media players have served up story after story about inflation, labor shortages, the cost of a Thanksgiving dinner and the price of gasoline (and milk!), but have given us virtually no information about the $753 billion going to the Pentagon via Biden’s Build Back Better plan.
Some activists say we don’t vote with forks, we vote with votes, that the whole idea of the “personal carbon footprint” was invented by oil companies to distract well-meaning individuals from the singular issue at hand, which is the need to stop burning fossil fuels. But as Lisa Held writes in the (alas, dearly departing) Peeled newsletter: “As someone who covers food policy closely, I can tell you first-hand that Congress is a mess. When meaningful legislation actually gets passed, which is rare, changes take an insanely long time to implement. Oftentimes, they’re reversed or rolled back. Corporate influence is everywhere.”
Apparently it’s “cozy season” on social media, if not in our actual lives. “Collect a bunch of cozy-projecting objects and you’ll just end up working to maintain your stuff, when what you really need is for your stuff to maintain you. From Brooklyn to Silicon Valley, earnest aesthetes line up all their handmade ceramics just so but have no idea how to cook a fucking soup without spending 45 minutes on the internet searching for the perfect recipe. Is “Cozy Season” a Cry for Help? [Kathryn Jezer-Morton, via AHP]
From Nick Cave’s Red Hand Files #171: “As Susie and I grow older, the anger at the indifference and casual cruelty of this world can still burn bright, but it does not define us, for the oxygen that fuels that anger is love — love for the world and love for the people in it. Love becomes anger’s great animator, as it should, as it must.”
The CNN milk story seemed to irritate a lot of people this month. But as Lyz Lenz points out, “It is harder to be an American family right now. No one is disputing that. But it’s not because of milk prices. It’s because of a lack of affordable healthcare, housing, and a lack of childcare.” But we’re giving the Pentagon $753 billion, so it’s all good.
Were you beaten as a child? Maybe it was called “spanking.” Maybe “discipline.” Once again, the U.S. is an outlier. And once again, not in a good way.
One way to radicalize the heartland: take away the jobs. This is not an apologia for Trumpism, or racism, or xenophobia, or any of a dozen other social maladies facing our rust-belted, Bible-belted midsection. It’s an indictment of an economic system that seems designed to bring out the worst in human beings.
“Everything that you are seeing has, apart from small changes, been there for thousands of years before you. After a while — not long — you will no longer exist, and the woods and rocks and sky will continue, unchanged, for thousands of years after you. What is it that has called you so suddenly out of nothingness to enjoy for a brief while a spectacle which remains quite indifferent to you?” ~ Erwin Schrodinger, My View of the World
Thanks for reading. Be well. Have some pie. I’ll be back soon enough.
Just a quick note today, and a couple questions for you.
For the last month of 2021 I’ll be off-line and somewhat out-of-pocket, which means the last planned post for the year is this Sunday’s links post, for which I have a slew of things to share with you. It’s been that kind of month.
As for December, it’s my red wheelbarrow, upon which so much depends. There are things to think about. This blog is one of them.
I’ve been writing in this space for ten years. And before this blog, there were two others. I’m not quite OG, but I’m OG-adjacent.
I intend to keep writing, here and elsewhere, but I’m considering how I might want to proceed. I know most of you subscribe via feed or email. Would you be (just as) happy with an email newsletter rather than a blog post? Would it make any difference? A newsletter feels more personal to me, more connected, less vox in deserto, but that’s me. What’s your take?
Also, I’m wondering how you feel about the monthly links posts. I know I’ve only done two so far, with a third one coming this weekend, but I’m completely enamored of them, and I look forward all month to putting them together. They give my online wanderings a sense of focus. Do you find them useful? I like it when writers I enjoy point me toward writing they enjoy. Give me all the links. The internet is too big for me to wander it alone.
But maybe you have all the links you need, and you just want more me. Maybe even more poems. (Seriously! I could make that happen!)
Please share your thoughts. I’m going to take your replies with me into my (deep and dark) December, and come out on the other end with a bit of clarity. That’s the plan, anyway.
Look for me on Sunday, then I’ll see you on the other side.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming"
The Kyle Rittenhouse trial led me to wonder about the history of riots in the U.S. and around the world, and if our era was particularly riotous compared with other times and places. Spoiler: civilization is rife with riot. Surprise!
The little city down the road from the little town in which I live announced this week that it wants to add 5,000 residents to its population. I think it’s a great idea. Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Or maybe just your burned out millennials in search of affordable housing.
My friends who live mid-city shared a link on social media recently to a house for sale in their neighborhood. “Come be our neighbors!” It was a nice house. 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, a basement, a manageable yard. It listed for under $200,000.
Out-of-state friends were gobsmacked. “What’s wrong with it?!”
There was nothing wrong with it. That’s what houses sell for here.
You want one?
Yes, it’s a small city in the Midwest. No, it doesn’t have a scene of any kind, except maybe sports; people are into basketball here. And high school football.
It’s true we’re powered by coal, and there are lots of big pickup trucks with stickers on the back reminding us that “coal keeps the lights on.” But we’re retiring the coal-fired plants — oh, so slowly — and we’re adding solar farms. Lots of solar farms.
Public transportation is abysmal here, there’s no denying it. But there are bike lanes (for the brave) and an off-street bike route that connects my little town to that not-so-big city, and a bicycle-and-pedestrian masterplan that’s translating into actual trail miles in the real world, not just in a slide deck. Astonishing, I know.
Property and other taxes are low, which is a mixed blessing, given that we want nice things but have no way to pay for them. But it does make it easier for people without a trust fund to afford that house.
The city’s downtown is livable, walkable. There are food trucks and art fairs. There’s a new bookshop (!!) on Main Street, owned by a couple local guys who went away and came back. People do that here. They leave, and they come back.
Also: we’re not experiencing drought or wildfires. Which is not nothing.
There’s something to be said for aspiring to a functional life in a place less… aspirational. The Midwest is not sexy, but it’s do-able. So, sure. Bring us 5,000 intrepid sojourners. Maybe not all at once, but soon. We’ll leave the porch light on for you, powered by solar!
Journalist George Monbiot maintains that the only hope we have is to leave the oil in the ground. Leave the coal. The natural gas. If we want to spare ourselves the worst of what’s coming, we have to leave it all where it is.
Maybe we could leave the forests, too. Even the ones ravaged by the pine beetle; in a century, maybe two, they will come back around. In the meantime we can return to the selective harvesting practiced decades ago, no more clear-cuts or plantation-style reseeding.
It’s (almost) too much to hope for, too far beyond the realm of what seems possible. And yet.
In two essays, one before Glasgow and one as the conference got underway, Mr. Monbiot argues that, if we were serious, we could transition to cleaner energy in months, not decades.
The reports coming out of Glasgow are grim. I heard one head of state from a country so smogged by emissions their people cannot safely breathe the air argue for the right to gain all the comforts and elegancies the fossil fuel age has to offer — for another 50 years! — before they transition to something less harmful. Assuming said transition doesn’t mess with their economy too much. Seriously!
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, no matter when the transition comes — and it will have to come, because the water is rising — it’s going to mess with everybody’s economy: household, community, nation, world. And it’s likely that we’re going to see some devolution going on, not in 50 years, but in 15. 10. 5.
It’s happening now. Those cargo ships tossing about on the ocean, awaiting their turn in port? They’re a bellwether. This unceasing pandemic? Ditto.
Things are going to be different. Things are different already. But isn’t the sunset beautiful?
It left me thinking of other artists and creators whose work goes largely unnoticed while they’re alive, and sometimes — sometimes — finds its way into the common culture long after they’re gone. Van Gogh’s wife became his persistent champion after he died in obscurity. Emily Dickenson had a sister who brough her poems to posthumous light.
Noticed or not by our contemporaries, the work we create is the verse we contribute to what Whitman called “the powerful play.” Most of it will go unheralded. So it goes. Our work is not (only) for us. It’s (also) for those who come after. Sometimes long after. We all plant trees under whose shade we will never sit.
It works the other way, too, where certain work — activist work in particular, creative and disruptive to business-as-usual — disappears down the cultural memory hole to become yet another subject about which we do not speak. History is littered with those as well.
It’s not news that the health care system in the U.S. is broken. Over the course of the pandemic we’ve seen how ghastly it is to offer health care as a for-profit industry with all of the same just-in-time inventory and staffing issues that plague the rest of the economy.
And we know insurance companies have worn the devil’s mantle in the industry for decades, creating a boondoggle of opaque billing and protocols.
It’s enough to make you swear off going to the doctor at all.
Private equity-owned ER staffing firms have been frequently sued by whistleblowers on their medical staff. Last year, the Washington state doctor Ming Lin sued Blackstone-owned Team Health for removing him from the schedule after he posted on Facebook criticizing the company’s unwillingness to appropriate sufficient funds for face masks and proper infectious disease protocols at the beginning of the pandemic.
And last month, Envision Healthcare, which is owned by the private equity firm KKR & Co and is widely viewed as the staffing company that invented surprise billing, was forced to pay a $26-million jury award to a physician it had terminated for claiming that the company’s understaffing of a busy Kansas ER violated the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), a 1986 bill that requires hospitals to keep physicians on hand to “stabilize” patients regardless of their ability to pay.
But few of the whistleblower lawsuits have alleged systemic fraudulent overbilling, because most physicians who work for the firms have no idea what is being billed under their licenses.
They have no idea because they are “supervising” a staff of physician assistants and nurse practioners, rather than working those ERs themselves, due to a private equity staffing practice of reducing the hours of higher-paid staff. Sirota explains:
An internal document circulated to client hospitals by the KKR-owned Envision Healthcare advises clients that between a quarter and 35 percent of ER visits could be handled by an employee who earns an average of 66 percent less than a board-certified emergency physician. As a result, bigger ERs now often “single covered,” meaning they only have a single doctor on duty at a time, and smaller ERs are often run by nurse practitioners or physician assistants being supervised remotely by a doctor.
In the article, Sirota refers to a private Facebook group “full of the anxious testimonials of doctors who fear losing their licenses over something in the daily mountain of paperwork on which they are required to sign off related to the endless string of patients treated by a nurse or physician assistant under their titular (and often Zoom-based) supervision.”
This intermediation on the part of firms that deal in junk bonds and hostile takeovers adds a layer of indifference and cruelty to the health care story that would be infuriating and dispiriting were it not so unsurprising. We’ve been watching it happen for so many years it’s become background noise: we’re all profit centers for someone, and for some of those someones, that is pretty much all we are.
It’s nothing personal.
It’s just business.
What a great system!
But never mind all that. The leaves are finally turning and we built a fire in the firepit at my friend’s house the other night and played music as the sun went down and the moon came up. I drove home afterward with campfire-scented hair and a head full of harmonies, put another blanket on the bed, did not set an alarm.
I hope you’ve enjoyed something equally satisfying this week.
He was making a bollocks economic argument, which the linked story does a fair job dismantling, but it reminded me that I wrote something not too dissimilar just a few weeks ago (sans the bollocks argument). Which led me to consider all the ways in which the past is fluid, unfixed and open to revisiting.
In the Long Now, the State Senator may be right. The brackets we put around historical events are rather arbitrary. There is always a before and an after in any story, and those are a part of the story, too, the concentric circles that radiate outward until all their energy has dissipated into, has been absorbed by, lives on within, the ecosystem.
Performer Niko Case writes:
“History” is a place I linger and look for because it comforts me; it’s a bit of a habit. It has the most beautiful wallpaper and I have to make sure I don’t live there full-time. After all, history is not inanimate either and the past changes behind us. The wake from a ship on the ocean is a movement that never stops moving. It is a “forward” also.
History clings to us, like a shadow at our heel. It’s a thing we cast, and it attenuates with the sun, with our changing perspective. How much of it is the thing that happened, and how much of it is us, squinting into the light, trying to discern the boundaries?
I read Alan Lightman’s Probable Impossibilities and sat for a while with the notion of an indifferent universe. I decided I was pretty okay with it.
It takes the pressure off. The cosmos does not care!
This weekend I wandered through the museum at the Working Men’s Institute in New Harmony, Indiana, a two-room display of bones and crystals and old paintings in ornate gilded frames, weapons from the Civil War, the skeleton of a horse named Fly who served in that war, the tooth of a woolly mammoth, plus the preserved body of a four-foot-long alligator gar, along with teacups and women’s shoes, and some questionable taxedermy.
New Harmony is the site of two utopian communities, one religious, one secular, that were established in the early nineteenth century. Neither community lasted for more than a few years, failing for all the usual reasons. But many of the structures the residents left behind have been restored and maintained, not just as historical artifacts but as functional public spaces.
The Workingmen’s Institute, with the horse skeleton and teacups and alligator gar, was established by William McClure, one of the founders of the second community. He had the institute built just a few years after that last community disbanded. It contains Indiana’s oldest library and was inspired by the mechanics’ institute movement in Europe, which was creating lending libraries for the working class while Andrew Carnegie was still in short pants.
I have a decal on a corkboard in my art room that says, “Indiana: It’s not that bad!” And even though I drive on back roads past more than a few Trump yard signs to get there, New Harmony is one reason why.
But if you hate the system, and you reject what it represents, and you are against the hierarchies and societal organization it perpetuates, and already regret how it affected yourself or how it may eventually affect your own kids — you also have to reckon with how your participation, even your reluctant, conflicted participation, sustains it. Does that mean quitting altogether, or deciding your future family will opt out? Who knows. But it does mean that you start thinking about what’s at stake in leaving — and, more importantly, what’s at stake in staying.
Her argument is with kids’ sports, but the questions Ann Helen Petersen asks could just as easily refer to a host of other perplexities of modern life for which we have to ask ourselves, should I stay or should I go?
Do we quit the shitty job? Leave the unhappy marriage? Stay on Facebook? Move out of the red state? Do we write a manifesto and find a cabin in the wilderness, live like bears or feral cats? Do we blow up our lives — or blow up a dam — because we can no longer abide the way things are?
What’s at stake in leaving? What’s at stake in staying?
How do we decide what’s worth sticking around for, and what is just too much to bear?
It’s true that the vast stream of bullshit we wade through in the course of our daily getting-on-with-it is sustained by our (conflicted) pulling on of hip boots and venturing out into the murky water of systems we didn’t design and don’t necessarily feel good about supporting. We shop at supermarkets and drive to work, heat our homes with fossil fuels, wear clothes made in dodgy factories, pay taxes that support a trillion-dollar military budget, conduct our business within an economy that devalues most of us, human and non-human alike, and send our kids to schools that perpetuate cultural myths and economic fairy tales in order that we may keep doing it.
We didn’t start this fire, but we’re going to burn up in it all the same.
MLK said that the long arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, and perhaps it does. But the arc of human history is less an arc than a wheel that turns and turns in the widening gyre until things fall apart and we begin again.
It seems to me that our efforts matter not so much in whether they sustain a system over which we have so little power, but in how what we do affects the people and places and things we love. What’s at stake in leaving? What’s at stake in staying? Here. In this place, among these people. Beside this river.
Jon Michael Greer writes about what he calls the metastatic growth of intermediation, a phrase that furrowed my brow for a bit until I worked out that he was referring to the process by which supply meets demand within our increasingly dysfunctional economy. Also: what it means for workers and peasants when so many intermediaries insert themselves into that process.
Though it wasn’t among the examples cited, the food service industry was the first to come to mind, because that’s where I spent much of the last 20 years. During that time the giant food service producers began supplying much of what is served out of restaurant kitchens today. (Think your casual-dining restaurant is making that pumpkin ravioli from scratch in its own kitchen this fall? Not likely.)
Also quick to mind: the food delivery services that rocketed to ubiquity during the shut-down period of the pandemic, when nobody could go to restaurants but everybody still wanted to eat food prepared by others.
I was on my last months working in the industry at the time, managing a cafe, and these services were presented as a solution to the problem of continuing to serve customers during the lockdown.
They were not a solution. They were another service attempting to squeeze a few more pennies from an already strapped sector of the economy by inserting themselves into the supply-and-demand equation. Our margins could not accommodate them, and at a cost of 15-20% of a given ticket, I daresay few indie food businesses could.
Yet these delivery companies were everywhere, driven by demand. Many of my friends used them, believing they were helping their local restaurants stay in business. Clearly, more than a few food businesses were saying, “Sure, let’s give that a try.” So where did they find that extra 15-20%?
Understand that the largest cost of running any food-based business is labor, with the price of real estate a distant second. If your landlord won’t give you a break on rent, and you’ve tapped out — or don’t have — a line of credit with your bank — you’re probably going to look for cost savings on the labor side of your profit & loss sheet.
Which means shifts get cut, and work gets redistributed among three servers instead of five, and two cooks instead of four. It means those cooks get pressed into service as dishwashers, and the servers take on the duties of the bussers. It means exhaustion for those who remain, and impoverishment for those who are let go, not to mention poor service and long waits for the diners who come out, leave dissatisfied, and write pissy reviews on Yelp.
Many of those food service workers who were let go would have loved the chance to open their own business, my cafe’s chef among them. Little lunch counters and walk-up food joints, street carts and food trucks, in particular, ought to be relatively inexpensive options that have the added benefit of making for a vibrant food scene in any community. But even these options are not available, due in no small part to the parasitic scourge of intermediation. As JMG writes:
Go to any town in flyover country and walk down the streets, past the empty storefronts where businesses used to flourish. There are millions of people who would love to start their own business, but it’s a losing proposition in an economy in which governments, banks, and property owners demand so large a cut that most small startup businesses can’t break even.
Once you start looking, you can’t not see it. So much of the vaunted “job creation” in our economy is really the insertion of intermediaries into the supply-and-demand equation. I’m thinking of my farming friends who employ a social media manager to maintain their online presence across the multiple platforms their customers expect to find them. The money to pay that manager is squeezed out of the produce these farmers grow, which is to say, out of their pockets. But without a social media presence, they flounder, and they don’t have time to do it themselves. They’re farmers, they already work 12-hour days.
At what point will we call the folks fleeing the drought-stricken west and southwest “climate refugees”? And are they really going to Duluth, or is that just cable news conjuring a trend from random acts of dislocation?
In a culture that has no use for its elderly and doesn’t seem especially fond of its children, it’s hardly surprising that we seldom acknowledge that anything of any real value came before us, or that something significant might come after. But civilizations come and go, and their demise can happen quickly, as in the case of the Late Bronze Age Collapse, which seems to have occurred over the span of about 100 years.
Recall that this is “the Bronze Age.” Imagine a disruption along the route from Afghanistan, from which tin has to be imported, into the Aegean. It would end the bronze industry. As Carol Bell, a British academician, observes,“the strategic importance of tin in the LBA [Late Bronze Age] … was probably not far different from that of crude oil today.”
We can argue that it’s so much worse this time, that the whole world is involved, and that we’re taking much of the world’s species along with us. All true. And yet we seem unable to help ourselves.
It’s interesting to consider what might have been the fate of the peasants within those earlier civilizations, the ones who did not live in the palaces and trade in luxuries, the ones without a lot of wealth to lose. The vast majority of the population, in other words. No doubt they did what was necessary. They moved from famine-stricken areas, from war-torn locales, sought refuge where they could. They farmed, insofar as they were able, kept some chickens, maybe a goat for milk and cheese. They tended their children, mended their clothes, argued with their spouses, had sex, ate what was available, sat around in the evening drinking beer. They laughed, told jokes, buried loved ones.
They looked at the night sky and the expansive cosmos and wondered about the meaning of it all.
They did these things because they were humans. They were us.
We are not so far removed as we might like to believe. My father’s parents and grandparents were peasants. My grandchildren, should I ever have them, will likely be, as well, not in the pre-industrial sense, but in a post-petroleum age sense. It won’t be terrible, any more than any time is terrible, though terrible things may occur.
What it will be is different. So it (always) goes.