Saturday, January 24, 2015

Caravan Dreams

Sometimes it actually becomes possible to act on a desire—to fulfill a pipe dream or a deeply held wish.  So, after innumerable years of daydreaming about owning an old travel trailer (specifically, a ‘60s era Shasta Airflyte), the planets and stars finally reached a favorable conjunction and we got one.

Sort of.

Last year I filed for Social Security benefits, realizing that what I’d acquire in extra benefits by waiting until age 70 probably wouldn’t pay off in the end (given my genes and the current state of the world). The tidy little sum I now get every month on top of my salary (I’m still teaching full time) has meant that we’ve been able to pay off significant debt and begin to allow ourselves a few luxuries we’d never have dreamed of before now.  Our frugality had, in fact, begun to wear on us, and we decided that rather than wait for actual retirement we’d try to enjoy ourselves to a modest extent before then.

I should also mention that just last summer we’d had some work done on the house (about which I’ll write anon), which included a new hog wire and cedar fence with two twelve-foot gates on the west and south. This was viewed at the time as rather fanciful, since we had nothing to pull through those gates and no real hope of getting anything any time soon: just planning for the distant future, we thought.

Then, after I had paid off the loan on Vera, it was the Beloved Spouse’s turn to purchase his final car (we don’t either of us imagine ever buying another). Quite coincidentally, the Shasta company had celebrated its 75th anniversary last year by re-issuing the little 16 foot Airflyte in a somewhat modified version at a price comparable to what we would pay for an authentic vintage job. And this version has a toilet, which is a significant issue for folks our age.

Of course, we needed a car that could pull a trailer—even one as modest in size as the Shasta—so we conducted research on Toyota FJ Cruisers and small trucks, looking for the most fuel-efficient V6 we could find.  In the end there turned out to be no such vehicle—and everything appropriate got about the same: 20 mpg or less.  And since we didn’t want anything fancy (my dream was to find something with as few electronic components as possible), we started looking at another company that had been making vehicles since 1941: Jeep.  The Wrangler Sport we ended up with has 4-wheel drive, no GPS, roll-down windows, and locks that require keys be inserted into them. And, it can easily pull our little 2500 lb. trailer.

It also turns out to be a terrific dog car, which we found out by dragging the Guthrie boys to California and back over our winter break.

More on that will follow, because it involves a visit to the Valley and some time at old haunts. But the fact that I can write anything at all is due in no small part to the fact that we were able to get away for the first time in ten years, and that having fulfilled the probably silly dream of having that trailer parked in the back yard (just as my grandmother had done in my fondly-remembered childhood).  Every time I go back there, it makes me smile.

First stop in an RV park, Midland/Odessa Texas, 21 December 2014

The last three photos are a bit cheesy (via Vintique on the iPhone), but they remind me of some taken inside Gram’s Shasta back in the day.

It's not quite Grandma's trailer (somewhat less substantial, and the back bench can't be used as a bed, even for dogs, because when it's pulled out it blocks the loo), but makes for a lovely little backyard retreat and a good place for sipping wine and watching sunsets.

Educating one's desire is an admirable pursuit, but it can lead to general angst and resentment, especially when one is surrounded by ridiculous extravagance on all sides. So while it's probably not inappropriate to question my philosophical purity, at least we didn't buy a behemoth truck to pull one of the colossal forty-foot toy-hauler monstrosities that were parked next to our little Shasta on the lot. And the important thing, I think, is that we wouldn't ever want to.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Coming of Age in the Twenty-first Century

Early on, in my misspent youth, I aspired to be both good-looking and smart. So I read Vogue magazine when I could afford it, looking for interesting ways to dress on my embarrassingly meager salary, so as to attract interesting men. I didn’t get very far with this ambition, but I was apparently attractive enough so that after my first divorce I dated highly intelligent men with Good Prospects.  As it turns out, though, it might have been the other aspiration that attracted them, rather than my questionable gorgeosity.

To foster the “smart” end of the equation, I pretentiously read The New Yorker (again, when I could afford it), and made sure I picked up the latest issue whenever I found myself flying home for a holiday.  This act was only partly a sham, because I really did enjoy many of the articles, and actually appreciated their length.  I read prose by Ursula LeGuin, Pauline Kael, and others whose work I admired, while seatmates on the plane read Time (articles in which were already getting shorter and shorter). If I wanted a news magazine, I chose U. S. News and World Report, because it seemed more heady—but also because the articles were more thorough than those of its competitors.

Although my motives may not have been entirely pure, I did learn a great deal, and was pointed toward interesting writers, topics, and points of view.  By shamming intellectualism, I actually became an intellectual.  I continued to pursue my part-time Ivy League degree, and have enjoyed an intellectually challenging and rewarding life ever since.

And so it was with some amusement that I added The New Yorker to my Newsstand subscriptions on my iPad a couple of weeks ago.  My one regret now, however, is that I’ll probably never have the time to read everything I’d like to, now that my interests are so much broader and deeper than they were during my callow years.  I’ll probably have to cancel it when I finally retire, because it’s awfully pricey—although its digital features are quite wonderful—but for now I’ll use part of my Social Security check to keep it going.

What brought all this to mind was an article by A. O. Scott in the New York Times magazine (to which I also subscribe online), called “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture” (September 11, 2014). In it Scott bemoans the deaths of “the last of the patriarchs” (in television shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men, none of which I have seen, although I kind of wish I had watched Mad Men, and may yet someday).  He doesn’t miss the sexist aspect of patriarchal authority, but notes that in progressing beyond patriarchy “we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grownups.” He goes on to note the popularity of “Young Adult” fiction among so-called grownups, between the ages of 30 and 44. (Oddly enough, though, anything labeled "adult" fiction tends to be pornographic).

Now, while I’ll admit to being geekily fond of comic book movies, I haven’t been able to bring myself to pick up copies of the Divergent or Hunger Games books. I never did get into Harry Potter, either, beyond the first chapter of the first book.  The plots and characters of all of these franchises are so familiar and so borrowed from older, wiser works that I read while I was earning the aforesaid degree, that I can only see reading them as an effort to get inside the heads of my “young adult” students.  And to them I always recommend Ursula LeGuin's books written for younger audiences, because she's pretty egalitarian in her treatment of her readers.

It took me eight years to get my B.A., and during much of that time I was also working as an admin around scholars at Penn—many of whom are now dead, but from whom I learned how to become (eventually) an adult. So I find myself trying somewhat desperately (and perhaps pathetically) to find ways to lead my own students toward at least a few more worthy literary endeavors.  They will probably never read War and Peace.  But how about a bit of Dickens?

The Beloved Spouse and I watched David Suchet’s tribute to Agatha Christie the other night on PBS and wondered at Christie’s ability to write lucid, careful prose as a very young child.  It shouldn’t be all that surprising, once one is familiar with what children read in those days: Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories, J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, Kenneth Grahame’s Dream Days. The prose in these “children’s” books is so rich, complex, and erudite that they’re well worth reading by adults today—rather like some of the cartoons we watched as kids (Rocky and Bullwinkle, anyone?) that amused both children and parents. 

It seems a bit ironic to me that some of the animated films out today offer more intellectual stimulation than do novels aimed at teenagers. But The Box Trolls, which is amazingly animated and richly written, is far less juvenile than what I’ve seen of the Harry Potter movies. I’m not talking here about the Disney princess movies (however engaging they might be) that make me happy I don’t have a small daughter today and don’t have to deal with the princess phase. Rather, it’s Lemony Snicket and Despicable Me that seem to harken back to Kenneth Grahame’s hilarious, luminous story, “Its Walls Were Made of Jasper.” I tried reading the latter to my Art History students when I was teaching about manuscript illumination. But they didn’t get it: too many unfamiliar words.

Scott reminds us in his essay that Huckleberry Finn is commonly relegated to the children’s section of libraries, and that’s about as close as most of today’s students get to literary depth.  Numerous attempts to ban it suggest its potential power to do just what Socrates died for: corrupt the minds of the young by teaching them how to think. I’m pretty sure they don’t read Moby Dick anymore, and if they get any Shakespeare at all, it’s Romeo and Juliet.

Another irony exists in all this, and it has to do with J. M. Barrie.  Peter Pan didn’t want to grow up. The Disneyfied Peter Pan never did, and he lives on in popular culture’s reluctance to offer few if any grownup models.  In the end, Scott’s essay has explained to me why I watch so few television series today, and perhaps why most of the contemporary literature I read is science fiction or works about science.  I’ve long held that some of the most compelling prose comes wrapped in covers that depict galaxies far away.  One of the first science fiction novels I ever read was Wilmar Shiras’s Children of the Atom, which sparked an interest in science and speculative fiction that hasn’t left me even in my dotage.  That particular novel probably inspired the X-men comics and characters, and although aimed at the young, treated its readers as if they were—at least potentially—adults.   

Image credit: The cover of Kenneth Grahame's Dream Days, illustrated by Maxfield Parrish, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Celebrating--and Questioning--Wilderness

On September 3, the Beloved Spouse and I celebrated (or at least acknowledged) our twenty third anniversary. As it turns out, the Wilderness Act marked its fiftieth anniversary on the same date--unbeknownst to me until I read a message from Orion Magazine, which is my main source of environmental commentary these days.

My mention of the occasion, however, won't rank up there with the joyous celebrations of tree huggers everywhere, because I'm rather skeptical about the whole notion of wilderness in the first place. I'm pretty sure it doesn't really exist in the present day, because there is almost no place on earth that isn't (as Wilhelm Dilthey would put it) human affected (with the possible exception of volcanoes in the remote hinterlands of Iceland).

More true now even than it was in the nineteenth century (Dilthey's Introduction to the Human Sciences was published in 1883), there isn't even a tiny corner of this planet that doesn't bear at least a chemical imprint of human activity. Not only that, it's difficult for many people to even imagine what real wilderness, truly unaffected by so-called homo sapiens sapiens (the wise wise human species), would look like.  In my first-level art history class I ask my students to choose a photograph of an object (animal, vegetable, or mineral) as untouched by humans as possible, and I have to warn them that a picture of an elephant in a zoo, or a trail through a forest, or a field with a fence, or even a single rose is not a good choice. But there's an obvious irony connected with the task, because a photograph in itself is evidence of human interference.

In the midst of my pondering the notion of the wild, this morning I read Rob Nixon's review in the New York Times of Diane Ackerman's new book, The Human Age. The book seems to be both potentially fascinating and terrifying, and I'll probably buy it for the iPad--but I'm not sure I really want to be reminded just how much we're interfering with the future of the world.  Looking up Nixon's recent Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor led me to a June 2011 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Slow Violence: Literary and postcolonial studies have ignored the environmentalism that often only the poor can see" which advocates moving the locally-focused understanding of environmentalism away from Thoreau and other members of our national canon (including those like Wendell Berry who are often invoked in this blog) outward: toward the rest of the world, far less cushioned from the ravages of human power than we are here.

As Nixon points in the article, there are other voices to be heard:
Figures like Wangari Maathai, Indra Sinha, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Abdul Rahman Munif, Njabulo S. Ndebele, Nadine Gordimer, Jamaica Kincaid, Arundhati Roy, and June Jordan have recorded the long-term inhabited impact of corrosive transnational forces, including petro-imperialism, the megadam industry, the practice of shipping rich nations' toxins (like e-waste) to poor nations' dumping grounds, tourism that threatens indigenous peoples, conservation practices that drive people off their historic lands, environmental deregulation for commercial or military demands, and much more.
While some of those enshrined in the American pantheon are now dead, none risked the fate of those like Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was executed by the Nigerian regime of General Sani Abacha for defending his people not against some marauding heard of infidel-purging jihadis (which might have garnered some coverage on CNN), but by us: big oil in America and Europe.

Earlier in the week I'd been reading about the current discussion on GMOs and whether or not they're "safe" and whether or not people have a right to know if they're in our food or not.  As the general controversy involving GMOs has developed, I've frequently thought that we might not be asking the right questions when it comes to allowing their use in the first place.  Just as I think that the question about preferring organically- vs. conventionally-grown food isn't whether or not it's "healthier," but rather if it's culturally better for us (more sustainable, economically more equitable, etc.), I wonder if the real question behind gene-manipulation in our food crops isn't more about whether it's ethically defensible and environmentally sustainable than whether it's going to poison us or cause birth defects or some such.

The question up for debate at the moment is really about labeling. Science seems to be bolstering the notion that modified foods do not pose a danger to our health. One long-time opponent of GMOs, Mark Lynas, has recently switched sides in the argument against their safety (as did Neil deGrasse Tyson), and is now advocating that we embrace them in order to stave off the looming cloud of hunger related to population growth. As both of these guys point out, the science backs the safety claim; not only that, if we're going to blast the climate-change deniers and the creationists for ignoring scientific evidence, we out not to base opposition to GMOs on unfounded skepticism.

For my part, I'm not particularly bothered by crops like Bt cotton--because we don't ingest it (and it's one of the most pesticide-dependent crops human beings grow, so that spraying chemicals significant harm both to the environment and to those who harvest it), but I'm also not so sanguine about our ability to ensure that food crops will never develop consequences down the line.  The people who develop and test the modifications are, after all, human. And we can be utterly blind at times, unable to foresee potential outcomes. Two words: atomic bomb. Or maybe one: thalidomide. Or an acronym: DDT.

Simply labeling products so we can make choices doesn't seem like it should be such a big problem, but "folks" (corporations are people, after all) like Monsanto, Bayer, and Dow are afraid that labeling will imply lack of safety and discourage people from buying their RoundUp-ready products.  Well, I already don't buy them for economic and ethical reasons; I don't like the fact that altered genes are escaping the plants they've been manipulated into the environment and generating unforeseen consequences (see this 2012 Mother Jones article). I don't buy milk with hormones in it because I identify too closely with those poor engorged cows I've seen in feedlot dairies.

In the end, though, it seems a bit luxurious to even be able to question our food sources, and to make choices at all because so many people in the world have to take what they get--some of which may be imposed upon them by the denizens of rich, still-imperialistic countries like our own. And while environmental consciousness seems to have risen here over time (as people become more aware of how what we do to the planet is hurting them), we don't seem to hold the same regard or concern when it comes to developing countries with resources we want to exploit.  So any benefits GMO foods might produce may come with cultural and economic costs in other realms.  And even with science currently able to proclaim the safety of genetic modifications, our track record isn't stellar when it comes to predicting future consequences.

Although humanfolk have been using artificial selection to manipulate crops since the beginning of agriculture (the very word implies manipulation), as Tyson points out, we're now messing with Mother Nature in ways that go far beyond simply mixing pollen from different species to increase the food supply.  And even though some GMO crops (like golden rice) might well help keep some people in Asia from debilitating malnutrition, the encroachment of Big Agriculture, like Big Oil, and the like isn't exactly sustaining human cultural traditions. It sure as hell doesn't bode well for the preservation of the wild.

I'm just not at all sure that we're actually capable, as a species, of making particularly wise decisions about the future. Wilderness as an idea is still with us, but as an actual, existing phenomenon I'm pretty sure there will be little left in another fifty years.

Image credit: The Bardarbunga volcano erupting in Iceland on September 4, 2014. The coincidence of this eruption and the idea that volcanoes are one of the few truly wild, non human-affected natural phenomena in existence was too much to resist. The image originally came from the Wikipedia article on the volcano--where you can also learn how to pronounce it. Blogger didn't like the coding, so I couldn't post a link.