Sunday, December 28, 2008


I've been thinking about anatomy a great deal lately, particularly about the anatomy of that central region of human bodily existence and perceived import, the heart.

For reasons of metaphor alone, the heart is well worth thinking about. In terms of physiology, however, the heart and the brain are organs of primary interest to those of us who value thinking because they're integrally connected to the processes that, ultimately, keep us chugging along.

I've never worried much about my the health of my brain, and for most of my life I was only vaguely aware of the fact that most of my ancestors had died of heart disease. But nearly fourteen years ago, I was discovered to be inflicted with really bad genes--an unfortunate combination of potentially lethal gifts from both of my parents. The disease is officially called familial hypercholesterolemia, a long, nearly impossible to pronounce name for genetically high cholesterol. After testing, my primary care guy discovered that my total was somewhere in the neighborhood of 500, at a time when the goal was below 200. My good cholesterol was abysmally low, and my bad outrageously high. But the doc's nurse hooked me up with a female cardiologist (the nurse was aware that women and heart disease were still little explored territory in those days, and she thought a woman would be better informed), whose first words to me after an initial exam, which began at my ankles, were "Poor baby; it's not your fault."

What my ankles told her was that I had long been depositing excess cholesterol onto my achilles tendons, forming what are called xanthomas. I had noticed years earlier that I was developing something that looked like "surfers' knots" above my heels, and chalked it up to bad shoes in my more fashionable youth. But the xanthomas told her that my difficulties, which by then included episodes of debilitating angina that masqueraded as tension in my upper back, had been bequeathed me by the peculiar combination of parents that resulted in my very existence on the planet.

I made an appointment for a catheterization to discover the extent of the damage to my arteries. In the interim I proceeded to take off across country by myself in a rented van to help my father distribute the contents of my grandmother's house after she'd moved to a rest home. I stopped off at Chaco Canyon, where I got a touch of heat stroke, and drove sick as a dog to Kingman, Arizona. The rest of the trip was relatively uneventful, but I look back on it now as a consummate folly. I was ready to pop, I found out after I had returned and kept the appointment, with four arteries clogged up nearly completely (80 to 90%). I was immediately sent upstairs to pre-op, and underwent a four-vessel coronary artery bypass graft (commonly called a "quadruple bypass") later that day. I was 47 years old at the time, and only a year into my first full-time teaching job. I was still young enough, and stupid enough, to feel invincible.

Now, all these years later, my cholesterol levels are well-controlled by drugs and diet, and my arteries are probably pretty clear. But age is now taking its toll, and my aortic valve has silted up ("calcified" is the more technical description) and I'm facing another chest-cracking, tentatively scheduled for March. Angina has returned, familiar and unfriendly, and I'm feeling terribly delicate. I can't exercise or over-exert myself, and when I suggested waiting for surgery until next summer my new (male) cardiologist looked at me as if I'd completely lost touch with reality (I seem to remember his saying, "Are you nuts?").

So now I'm consumed once again with the workings of the human heart, and that's led me to wonder about how we've visualized this particular organ through time. This has led to an exploration of images, which will be featured on the Cabinet (recently spiffed up, by the way). But since the Farm focuses on heart (in the metaphorical sense), home, hearth, and place, I thought I'd post a warning here for those who haven't yet twigged to the possibility of disease, and who just might want to hang around a bit longer in whatever place they call home.

Had I been tested in my twenties, I'd have avoided the atherosclerosis that nearly doomed me before my fiftieth birthday. My children were tested when they were sixteen and nineteen, right after my initial surgery, and my daughter was discovered to have the gene--or at least a similar combination of genes. As a result, she's on appropriate drug therapy, is physically active, and takes better care of herself than I ever did.

The benefits of living in moderation cannot be overstated. Although I couldn't have avoided the genetic component of my afflictions, eating more thoughtfully, exercising more conscientiously, and not letting stuff get to me as much as I have done throughout my life might have ameliorated the bad genes somewhat. I've done all of the above some of the time; I needed to be doing it all of the time. And, of course, following the latest adjustments, I'll do better. But it shouldn't take any of us this long to learn.

Image credit: A closeup view from above looking down on the aortic valve of Peskin and McQueen's computational heart during ejection from the left ventricle. Valve leaflet fibers are white. The red blobs are blood markers, and the red streaks show the recent paths of the blobs. From the Pittsburgh Computing Center's page, Heart Throb, on blood circulation and the heart. The page contains stunning computer models of heart functions, and I'm hoping that my using this one constitutes fair use.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Remembering Ned Fritz

One of the consequences of getting old includes--as I've undoubtedly mentioned before--perusing the daily obituaries page in the local rag. Occasionally I run into a familiar name, as happened last Saturday, when the Dallas Morning News ran a long obit on Edward C. Fritz (better known as Ned), a 92 year-old conservationist who had once contributed mightily to my effort to learn to love the prairie. This morning the paper included an editorial comment on Fritz's legacy.

I only met Ned once, when he spoke at a gathering I attended, and where he signed my copy of his book, The Sterile Forest, about the brutality and stupidity of clear-cutting (Austin: Eakin Press, 1983; it seems no longer to be available). Through his writings and other activities, he was a major contributor to my understanding of the region. Aside from this small personal connection, however, his impact on conservation and environmental understanding in Texas is profoundly significant, and his death at a grand old age offers a moment to take pause and recollect.

In 1964, Ned Fritz served as the first president of the Nature Conservancy of Texas board of trustees . In 1966 he founded the Texas Committee on Natural Resources, and was a primary organizer of the Big Thicket Coordinating Committee, which convinced Congress to establish the Big Thicket National Preserve. In 1970, he helped found the Texas League of Conservation Voters. And the list goes on . . . and on. He was a tough, feisty lawyer willing to take on just about anybody, including his neighbors:

In Dallas, along the Trinity River, Ned Fritz and his wife Genie live in a defiantly modest house in an opulent neighborhood. While their neighbors' idea of landscaping runs to high gloss, the Fritz's three acres of bottomland feature a riot of hardwood vegetation thriving under 40 years of selection management directed by one of the toughest tree huggers around. Cedar elm dominates, along with Shumard red oak, chinkapin, Osage-orange, and the Texas state champion green hawthorne. Unimpressed, Fritz's wealthy neighbors took him to court over his approach to urban landscaping.

They should have known better. Fritz won hands down.
(Quoted from Tom Wolf's 1991 article in American Forests, "Fritz vs. the Feds")

Fritz had mentioned his landscaping preferences in his talk, which subsequently inspired my "East Plano Suburban Prairie Ecology Project" to the chagrin of my own neighbors. I let my already questionable lawn go wild, and it immediately sprouted a meadow of Texas dandelions, blue-eyed grass, flax, Venus's Looking Glass and myriad other wild flowers. One day, while I was away, a neighbor rode his lawn mower over to my house and got rid of it for me, thinking he was doing me a favor. That's probably one reason for my habit of gardening as accidentally as possible now that I own a half-acre of vegetal near-anarchy.

I can add little to the accolades already available all over the web (the best obit I found was at the Austin American Statesman, and there are plenty more), but few local folk have had more influence on my own views than this one man, and I thought it important to thank him in public.

In his honor, here are a few web pages related one way or another to conservation efforts in Texas that aren't already linked above:

The Conservation Fund
Cooperative Conservation America
The National Park Service's Big Thicket page
The Nature Conservancy's 2004 Earth Day article, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Nature Conservancy in Texas

Image credit: I pinched the Big Thicket image from Cooperative Conservation America, which I hope will forgive me in exchange for the plug.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Waste Not

One of the unintended--but not at all unwelcome--aspects of a recessional economy is that folks seem to be waking up to one of the major consequences bequeathed us by our acquisitiveness: waste. Or should I say Waste, with a capital. As a consumption-based society, we constantly produce more trash than anybody. Anywhere. Any time in memory.

A few weeks ago, I showed my Visual Anthropology class a pair of films John Marshall made many ears ago among the !Kung Bushmen in southern Africa. Many students noticed the sharp contrast between the early film, The Hunters (1957) and N!ai, Story of a !Kung Woman (1980) in terms of the domestic environments the two films depicted. In The Hunters, and in the bits of N!ai filmed early in her life, the people had few material belongings--but they also had no trash. After N!ai's people were moved to a reservation and exposed to Western overseers and tourists, they began to accumulate more and more stuff, and their surroundings became littered with cast-off bits of paper, plastic, and other trash. Deprived of their traditional hunting and gathering economy (in which acquired goods were precious and not easily discarded), they had little to do but quarrel and earn money from tourists to pay for material signs of their "importance" in the group.

I've frequently ranted about how much stuff we buy, and how unnecessary most of it is, but being reminded of the the relationship between making something and using it provided a fresh lesson in the politics of waste. The "advanced" or "civilized" West (as opposed to the "uncivilized" or "primitive" natives of various regions) measures its wealth in concepts like Gross Domestic Product, "The total market value of all final goods and services produced in a country in a given year, equal to total consumer, investment and government spending, plus the value of exports, minus the value of imports" ( Wikipedia's map of the world's relative GDP's is instructive). Thus, worth as a civilization is grounded in a notion of how much loot we produce and consume.

Perhaps what we need now is a Gross Garbage Index to help us understand how much of what we "consume" is only bought--not used, but simply discarded. Even those of us who recycle most of what we can't physically consume (food packaging, for example) are adding to the pile. Because of the economic down-turn, more people around here seem to be growing more conscious of what they buy, and perhaps that will help people understand how much they throw away, such as wasted food. On the online forum I frequent, a recent thread (short-lived as it was) explored what posters let go to waste in their refrigerators. Some were already extremely conscious of their own habits, but others admitted to carrying on random biological experiments out of neglect or forgetfulness. I have been guilty of growing my own varieties of alien critters on occasion, but have begun a deliberate campaign to avoid them. The best solution, of course, is simply to eat one's leftovers promptly, but doing so does require a modicum of attention.

And I think that's the root: we simply do not attend to our habits. They are, after all, habits, often ingrained and out of mind. But solving the problem of waste requires that we do pay attention, and that we modify our habits accordingly.

People who live in slightly less profligate communities, such as the Brits, seem to have twigged to this already (they do live on a fairly small island, with few landfill possibilities). The other day I was rereading the March edition of my favorite shelter magazine, the British edition of Country Living (with its environmentally sensitive editorial bent), and noticed a small article in the "Ecoguide" section on "The food we throw away." One bit of advice stands out: "Cook once, eat twice." Freeze leftovers instead of letting them rot, or at least compost the inedible side-effects of cooking. Doing so, the article claims, will make a difference: "If we stopped wasting food that could have been eaten, it would be the equivalent of taking one in five cars off the road." And then it sends us to a really cool website to tell us how to do it: Love Food Hate Waste. The section on food waste points out the following:

Around a third of all the food we buy ends up being thrown in the bin and most of this could have been eaten. Reducing food waste is a major issue and not just about good food going to waste; wasting food costs the average family £420 a year [about US $630] and has serious environmental implications, too.

Of course, this seems intuitively obvious to many of us, but again, we're simply not in the habit of thinking about such things. At least we haven't been until now.

Another obvious way of reducing waste is to buy fewer things--rather a hard sell during the holidays. But the Washington Post ran a column by Judith Levine on Sunday called "Don't Buy It," which describes the situation better than I ever could. And she should know, having spent an entire year without buying anything but necessities. The idea's a variation on themes we've heard before (some of which I've tried, like living on a welfare mother's budget for a month), where writers conduct experiments to help them answer questions:

The Year Without Shopping occurred to me, like so many rash ideas, at Christmastime. Although I'm a secular Jew, I'd scattered $1,001 on gifts and other holiday odds and ends. As my credit line grew smaller and my shopping bags heavier, I envisioned their contents, along with those of a whole nation, dismissed, disliked and discarded -- and moldering in landfills forever. Then as now, more than two-thirds of the gross domestic product came from consumer spending. There was, and still is, essentially one measure of economic health: growth. But all that growth is outgrowing our finite planet. Ask any economist left or right about this, and he'll write off resource depletion as an "externality," something to worry about later.

I decided to investigate the connection between the personal activity of shopping and the global problem of overconsumption. And I figured that the best way to understand the draw of the marketplace would be to quit it altogether, then see how that felt -- like contemplating a failed marriage from the distance of post-divorce single life. I knew that my no-shopping budget would be on Mother Earth's side. Which side would the macroeconomy eventually be on? Today it's clearer than ever that we'll have to worry about that sooner rather than later.

Her book, Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping, is now at the top of my list (one more thing to buy--but as anyone who's visited my house knows, I still own nearly every book I've ever bought), and her talk about it at Cody's Books in San Francisco is available in full from

And so, even after all this rumination, I'm still sanguine about the future. The new Cabinet is shaping up to be something I can live with, smart people seem to be populating the airwaves more and more, and people like Levine seem to be asking the right questions. Maybe I won't see utopia in my lifetime, but perhaps dystopia can be kept at bay. If we can decrease the number of landfills significantly, I'll take that as a sign that we've begun to come to our senses.

Image source: Landfill Compactor in Australia (We Are Not Alone!), by Ropable via Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Dystopian Economics

This week my History of Art & Design II lecture is about "art between the wars"--the impact of Cubism and politics on art in the early third of the twentieth century. After holding forth on Constructivism, Surrealism, and Art Deco, I showed the "Streamlines and Breadlines" episode of Robert Hughes's paean to this country's art history, American Visions. The parallels between then and now, pointed out frequently these days in the papers (which my students generally do not read), became clearly apparent as Hughes proceeded from the Chrysler Building to the WPA.

I recommended that these kids watch Tim Robbins's wonderful 1999 film, The Cradle Will Rock, to soak up the ambiance of the period, and to further attune themselves (sorry for the pun--there's music) to the similarities.

But what really disturbs me about the current economic situation is not the fear of a return to the Depression. Rather, it's the total picture: Because of the banking crisis, people can't get credit to buy stuff--houses, cars, useless crap, whatever--they can't afford.

Now, I'll admit to having spent beyond my immediate means, and have been willing to pay for it in interest, but I've never spent beyond my total means to repay the loan. And I guess I would be in a bit of a pickle were my husband and I to lose our jobs (which is, of course, a significant part of the immediate problem). But there also seems to be an enormous number of individuals and institutions that have spent willy nilly without regard to consequences, giving out loans to folks with little promise of being able to repay them or taking out loans they can't possibly make good on.

And now I'm going to be spending my tax money--which should go to helping maintain infrastructure and provide a safety net for the truly destitute--to help shore up an economy that makes no bloody sense to me at all.

It's not that I'm without sympathy for people who were duped into borrowing from companies who painted a rosy future and obscured the bitter facts behind adjustable rate mortgages. But as a nation of spenders, we've been seduced by fantasies: The American Dream, American Power, American Wealth, American Can-Do. Buy a bigger house than you need; buy a bigger, fancier car; show off your success with expensive clothes and jewelry; buy the latest, greatest techno-gizmo! Spend your stimulus-incentive tax rebate, don't save it!

Never mind about saving for a rainy day (let alone a stormy one). Funny how the Big Economics boys didn't realize that a number of people had gotten wind (maybe through the vicissitudes of the oil bidness) that things might not be coming up roses, and thus banked their rebate checks rather than cashing them in for a new big-screen TV.

Whatever happened to plain old common thrift?

Of course, being thrifty (like being frugal) requires a long view: a notion of making it through to some future point. It doesn't fit in with our instant-gratification way of existing in the moment. Carpe diem! Forget about manana! Get it now, with easy credit, on a convenient installment plan! Forget about educating one's desire; whether you need it or not, buy it. Now.

A while back we started paying down credit cards and resisting the urge to buy anything we couldn't pay cash for, and it's amazing how quickly one can decrease indebtedness that way. As the principal is reduced, the amount of interest declines, and the loan melts away. As one debt is repaid, that money can go into paying off another more quickly. And so on.

I've also realized that I'm probably driving the last car I'll ever own. By the time my Civic (currently nudging 100,000 miles) runs out of gas, I'll probably have done so as well. So as soon as the Element is paid off in another year or two, we'll have that money to live on. I think of it as my retirement fund, since what little there was in my Fidelity account now probably won't be there by the time I retire--if I can ever retire.

Unless, of course, all of the trillions that are going into bailing out CEOs and short-sighted automakers actually do something to stimulate the economy and return us, hell-bent, to our free-spending, unthinking, blind obedience to the gods of greed-based corporate capitalism.

It's a good thing Adam Smith is already dead. Otherwise, today's headlines alone would surely kill him.

Image Note: When I was looking for an image to illustrate this post, I went to Wikimedia Commons and searched under "shopping," which led me to an arcade and immediately reminded me of everybody's favorite dystopia: the city of Los Angeles as Ridley Scott imagined it in Bladerunner. A further search on Wikipedia for the film provided me with this terrific shot of Hong Kong taken by Diliff--and it was the emerging metropolis of Hong Kong that apparently inspired Scott. A recent bit on NPR about the proliferation of LED billboards in LA made this seem all the more more prophetic.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A New Hope

Sorry about the sappy title, and apologies to George Lucas, but there's an odd conundrum developing in the usually pessimistic corners of my brain. On the one hand, I look at the current economic mess and wonder, "What next?" just as the newest SNAFU hits the fan. Automakers, who have for decades ignored dwindling gas supplies and rising prices, resisted the need for less polluting vehicles, and who have been feeding the greed frenzy with the likes of Hummers and other fuel-insatiable monstrosities, have suddenly decided that they need help to carry on, or the entire country is going to drown in a tsunami of unemployment and related ills.

Or the banking industry, which has fed its own appetite for luxury and excess to such an extent that its CEOs and other executives have driven venerable institutions into a quagmire of bad loans and unspeakable debt, requires us to fork over 700 billions to help fix things--and some of the companies are apparently using it for bonuses they otherwise couldn't afford, or dividends, or other payouts that have nothing to do with saving the economy, and then bitching when somebody suggests using part of the windfall to provide an antidote for some of those "toxic" mortgages that caused the industry to implode in the first place.

On the other hand, however, I find myself waxing optimistic as I watch the new administration taking shape. The world as a whole seems pleased with American's choice of president, and some of the saber-rattling has calmed down. In this country, I hear positive comments on both the right and the left at the possibility that Hillary Clinton might become Secretary of State (something, by the way, I predicted to Beloved Spouse after she conceded the nomination to Obama), and there are increasingly audible noises about a Republican cabinet member. McCain seems to be in a conciliatory mood, and pundits are welcoming back "the old John McCain"--the one who brokered deals on campaign finance across the aisle, not the one who inexplicably chose rabidly partisan Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Abraham Lincoln is back in the news, thanks to Doris Kearnes Goodwin's almost prophetic book, Team of Rivals, which Barack Obama seems to be using as something of a guidebook in deciding how to populate his cabinet. Wisdom is back in style, and intelligence has been resurrected as a badge of honor, rescued from the dung heap under which it has been buried for the last eight years. I don't mean to be crabby about this, but the denigration of the intellectual in recent years has caused me more angst than any single issue aside from the war, and has made my job --and the job of teaching in general--immeasurably more difficult.

And therein lies the rub. It's really hard to be a utopian when things are going well. But for the first time in a very long time, I'm not sure the world is going to end before I die (my 65th birthday, December 21, 2012, notwithstanding). Even my daughter, who had grown increasingly disinclined to raise children in the world as it has been, decided after the election that maybe I will be a grandmother someday, after all. So despite the economy's current downturn, I can't help but see the possibility, at least, of a rebound if Obama can construct coalitions of people who really want to save the world--or at least help the world save itself. Perhaps fear of abject economic collapse is a good thing: an impetus to finally create workable solutions.

Of course, if things really do get better, the sequel to More News From Nowhere will look a little silly, based as it is (in its planning stages, at least) on the probability of near-future catastrophe.

The discussion in New Scientist I mentioned in my last post, about the future of science fiction, is also relevant here, because utopias spring from the same impulse: wondering about what can and/or will be. Economic difficulties are not the only ones we face, of course, and Kim Stanley Robinson is spot-on when he says "we have to do the impossible and imagine the next century. The default probability is bad - not just dystopia but catastrophe, a mass extinction event that we will have caused and then suffered ourselves. That's a story we should tell, repeatedly, but it's only half the probability zone. It is also within our powers to create a sustainable permaculture in a healthy biosphere." So perhaps the task of science fiction and utopian writers alike will be to imagine conditions that either stave off or ameliorate the catastrophic possibilities.

Immersed as I am with the current academic quarter, and in working on a myth course I haven't taught in years (but get to in January), I don't have much time for writing now, anyway. But I will, at least for the moment, enjoy the possibility of peace, economic recovery, and/or positive changes in the environmental situation. And if, in future, I'm out of a job in terms of plot devices or blog fodder, so be it. I think it will be well worth the price.

Note: just in time to help me celebrate, Wall-E is out on DVD today. For anyone who hasn't seen it, I can't say enough to recommend it. Pixar may have produced the single most hopeful film released in recent years, and this is the perfect moment for its wide release for home viewing.

Image credit: Evelyn de Morgan's Hope in a Prison of Despair, 1887, via Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Hard Times and Imaginary Worlds

Now that midterm madness is over, I can get back to thinking about things that keep my aging brain from degenerating too much. This time, I'm concerned about the future of entertainment in general, and in imaginary worlds in particular.

The current concern was brought about by the sudden demise of WizKids, a company that manufactured wonderful collectible card games, tabletop board games, the very popular Hero Clix series, and several film-related card and model games like Pirates of the Caribbean, and Star Wars Pocket Models. In the interest of full disclosure, my son was a designer for the company, which was bought out a few years ago by the giant trading-card conglomerate, Topps, which was itself acquired last year by Michael Eisner's media conglomerate, Tornante Group.

Topps, according to the abrupt announcement (reported to me not by my son, but by a former student who keeps track of such things), "will still actively pursue gaming initiatives" but feels that "it is necessary to align our efforts more closely with Topps current sports and entertainment offerings which are being developed within our New York office." Since the games seem to be really popular, judging from the number of forums and other web-presence, I was a bit curious about the company's reasoning.

But the answer seems to be fairly simple, according to Jeff Grubb's blog: plastics. "The sudden and unexpected demise of Wizkids has many likely causes, and if I knew anyone still there, I might even find them out. But since I worked for the about five years back, most of the original team have left, voluntarily or involuntarily or in a combination of the two. So while I can guess about what goes through the Topps' executives minds, I can't really speak to it. But I do know that oil prices have shot up in the past few years, and with the price of oil, the price of plastic. And that cannot be good for a company's bottom line."

Grubb goes on to link a BBC story about the emptying of the Chinese city of Guangzhou, where the plastic pocket-model games were manufactured, due to job loss. So the impact of the Topps decision reaches far beyond the city limits of the WizKids home base, Seattle.

A comment on the GeekDad post (on about the announcement notes the popularity of the Pirates and Star Wars lines, so it will be interesting to see what unfolds over the next few weeks.

American business's short attention span seems to be at work here, and it operates on a number of levels. Entertainment media of all varieties are affected by corporate bottom lines, and their need to make big profits quickly. Unless vast numbers of people latch on to a product in a short period of time, the product disappears or gets dumped--no matter how high its quality or how promising it is in the long term.

This is most apparent in television, where terrific programs get canceled because they don't build up an audience soon enough. Two of my all-time favorite shows, Firefly (cancelled after only eleven episodes had aired) and the award-winning Nero Wolfe (which enjoyed two seasons--but deserved more), got the ax because although they had loyal (and in the case of Firefly, almost fanatic) followings, the numbers just weren't big enough. Both shows were smart, witty, and beautifully imagined, but that wasn't sufficient. Instead, we get season after season of inane reality shows that are cheap to produce and popular with the great unwashed.

You'd think that production companies and networks would be interested in mature people with disposable income, who are attracted by good stories and good quality, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Maybe it's because we're smart enough to see through advertising ploys and don't fall for every pill-shill that comes on the screen--but that doesn't explain why the guys who make the stuff we would buy don't advertise on these programs.

Since many of my students will end up working for advertising companies, I'll be curious to see what happens after the fallout settles from the current economic mishegoss. I'm sanguine enough about the future to think that we will come out okay, if our new President is able to assemble a solid team of advisors and can steer us toward some sanity. But as smart as he is, he won't be able to save us from ourselves if we insist on instant answers and results, and if we continue to act as if tomorrow is the deadline for everything.

Games and television are, of course, only two of the media we use to speculate about the future and work through ideas about what comes next. If we stop fostering the imagination that supports invention and creativity through visual media, books, and game-playing, we'll end up limiting future possibilities. Fantasy and science fiction, instead of simply being escapist strategies to help the disaffected cope with our angst-ridden world, offer a kind of laboratory experience, where different possibilities can be explored. And if reading declines (though I'm not convinced it's going to), TV and games are going to become even more important.

This week's New Scientist ran a special feature on the future of science fiction, and some of the responses (from some of today's best writers) are telling. Stephen Baxter points out that "science fiction has - rarely - been about the prediction of a definite future, more about the anxieties and dreams of the present in which it is written"-- and that may well be its primary value. I especially liked Margaret Atwood's response: "Not all of science fiction is 'science' - science occurs in it as a plot-driver, a tool, but all of it is fiction. This narrative form has always been with us: it used to be the kind with angels and devils in it. It's the gateway to the shadowiest and also the brightest part of our human imaginative world; a map of what we most desire and also what we most fear." Science fiction are us.

I'm really going to miss the Star Wars Pocket Model games and the Pirates games, not because I played them but because I liked the idea of them. Of course, I enjoyed the idea of having a son who designed space ships and pirate ships for a living, but I also liked the ships themselves: tiny little objects made to fit in miniature worlds, like the imaginary landscapes of Charles Simonds or of the dollhouses we played with as kids. They add a physical dimension to imagination, and help us map out strategies, or re-imagine the past, or simply to play--a vital ingredient in figuring out how to survive the present and invent a viable future.

Images: Some of the WizKids loot I've collected; a screen shot from the television series Firefly, via Wikipedia.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

This Land is Our Land

Yesterday morning I voted in a local elementary school. It took about ten minutes, and at the end of my session with the touch-screen machine, I took my little plastic card back to the poll-watcher and stopped by the table that held the "My Vote Counted" stickers. By that time, I was already weepy. I knew it was coming, because I've often wept after voting. It's probably a combination of relief, sentimentality, and memory (I've been interested in the process since I was sixteen), but I always choke up, and I always embarrass myself on the way out of my polling place. This time, however, the lady who hands out stickers said, "Don't worry, Honey. You're not the first one today! It's an emotional process."

And it is. The democratic social contract we've established allows me to participate in the process of choosing who will not only lead our country, but represent it to the rest of the world. During most of the last decade, I have not been a happy camper, because I've seen the image of this country decline around the globe (even as economies have chosen to emulate it to a recently disastrous degree). I've seen leaders and potential leaders who denigrate education and intelligence as being "elitist" and (largely because they don't understand the science) who have dismissed growing scientific evidence that human beings are destroying the planet as being "cynical" (because they don't know what cynicism means) or as doomsaying.

We talk a great deal about equal opportunity, but inequality persists. We talk about justice, but injustice abides. We assert our primacy in world affairs, but we act unilaterally and alienate our allies. Nobody seems to want this to be the case, but we actually do little about any of it. People who start at the bottom have little hope of rising very far, the innocent languish in jails because of inadequacies in the justice system, and our unwillingness to respond to environmental crisis and to participate in global initiatives has made us seem like a nation of rich, spoiled children.

But as a result of the ballots cast yesterday and in the days leading up to the election (thanks to the proliferation of early voting options that helped precincts all over the country deal with an influx of new voters), we are now in a position to re-address these issues and to re-emerge as a model of opportunity, justice, and responsibility.

I don't know what the future holds, or how well Barack Obama will be able to manage the morass of complexity we call "the government." I do know, however, that he has inspired millions of young people to vote and to participate in the process; this is especially promising because it is their future we've been messing about with. I fervently hope that the conciliatory speeches I heard last night--both of which also made me choke up again--will mark a different approach to politics, and signal an effort to rebuild our economy and the world's understanding of who we are.

However one might feel about the outcome, this is an enormously symbolic election. It marks the moment when, after over two hundred years of assertions about equality and opportunity, we have finally reached the point where we are doing what we say we are: a nation of human beings, where arbitrary categories such as race and gender no longer bar citizens from the highest offices in the land. We've finally grown up, just in time to show our kids a better path toward their own future.

Image credit: Flag map by Lokal_Profil, via Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Pastoral Roots and Stewardship

Instead of reading Chairman Mao
I think I'll go and milk my cow.
--Wendell Berry, "The Mad Farmer March"

Back in the day--when I was still leaning rightward regarding economic issues--the main sources for information on what would now be called "sustainability" were to be found only in leftish periodicals, such as Mother Earth News and the Co-Evolution Quarterly (later to be called the Whole Earth Review). Urban-dweller that I was at the time, I still longed for the life of the self-sufficient farmer/rancher whose ethos I'd been fostered into: farms, ranches, victory gardens, home-grown cattle and eggs that could be found in farmers' markets, home-made sausage and cheese, down-to-earth values.

Early on I was also seduced by the ideal of community, and actually partook in a co-operative apartment arrangement that did amazingly well, housing three women (including one who was married and attended Penn three days a week before heading home to husband and hearth in Washington DC for the other four days) and two men, a dog, and two cats. One of the cohort was an Orthodox Jew who managed to maintain Kosherness in a house full of heathens. We did rather well for over a year until she and I both left to marry and one other member bought a chicken farm in upstate New York.

I was reminded of all this by a recent op/ed piece by local pundit Rod Dreher in the Dallas Morning News on Kentucky farmer, poet, and advocate of sustainable living, Wendell Berry. One of the reasons I don't like political labels in general (Liberal, Conservative, Etc.) is because they generally don't do a very good job of describing folks in particular, and because many of us don't fit into tidy little piles. Wendell Berry is one such person, being extremely conservative in regard to land use, responsible stewardship, and the centrality of family and community. He's also a pacifist (for reasons that coincide with his other values), and a proponent of social justice. Likewise, Rod Dreher (author of the Crunchy Cons concept that describes conservatives who hold what otherwise might otherwise be considered tree-hugging Lefties; he also writes a blog for Beliefnet) shares a number of these values (as do I), which led him to write this week's essay.

Praising Wendell Berry gets one in trouble with free-market economists because Berry's model for how to live in the world posits that competition presupposes winners and losers and, thus, if the free market reigns, we foster a class partition into one or the other. A thoughtful critique of this stance (like this one from Taki's Magazine) would note that the "losers" aren't thrown into a pit of alligators or anything (ideally, they find something else to do), but I think that misses the point. Berry's own critique is primarily about values: the very same values that helped found the Republic in the first place: agrarianism, community, co-operation, responsibility, justice. And most critics of this view start talking immediately about personal preference, and ask "what if I don't want to do what Berry thinks I should do?"

So once again we move toward the politics of desire: I don't want to have to pay the high prices that free-range, hormone-free chickens or beef cost, so I shouldn't have to; I should be free to choose. Never mind the multiple long-term benefits of better choices, such as decreasing the amount of meat we eat (thus reducing the cost of our meat bill in the first place), the higher quality of the meat as a product, the welfare of the animals, the reduction of pollutants and chemical use, the livelihood of the farmer, etc. Never mind that people in the habit of considering the entirety of the picture (not just the initial cost) conclude that convenience is pretty far down on the list of reasons for doing anything. Never mind that personal preference (again in the long run) is a pretty lousy reason for doing anything (because, after all, we're not all hermits living alone in the wilderness). That we should only do what we want to do seems to be an awfully childish way of approaching life.

Another criticism I've heard lobbed toward both Dreher and Berry has to do with religion. While most folks would see faith as a good place to begin, those given to questioning its efficacy as a source of reason do have a legitimate complaint. Believing something frequently trumps rationality, and citing a god as the ultimate authority doesn't work in a cogent argument. The skeptics among us (and I include myself here) are always looking for solid evidence.

But this country and most others on this planet are grounded in one religious tradition or another, and faith permeates culture to such a degree that ignoring it isn't going to make it go away. Preferring that it not exist helps no one and alienates many. In addition, faith is usually only one reason for doing something--not the entire ground. So if you think we should be stewards of the earth rather than exploiters of its bounty, it doesn't make a lot of difference whether it's because of faith or simply because it makes good scientific sense. Until god is really dead, we have to take belief into account, and he/she doesn't appear to be expiring any time soon. Some form of religion is part of our history and foundational to more world views than not. And since many of the most reasonable people I know also believe in some form of divine being, I can't see dismissing an argument simply because it arises from a deeply held belief.

That said, we are what we do. So if we say one thing and do another, we're just hypocrites, and no amount of religious doctrine is going to make us anything else. And this is why I admire Wendell Berry; he's deeply Christian, and he lives, breathes, writes, and acts as a steward. And a steward, I think, is a good thing--a caretaker, a holder of the house, a fosterer of the land. Instead of doing something simply because it's convenient, or because it satisfies some immediate desire or preference, Berry thinks broadly about taking care of the earth, of sustaining life and well-being, rather than pursuing some nebulous notion of "happiness" that involves constant acquisition of stuff.

It's unfortunate that, like the words "green," "organic," and "natural," "sustainability" is becoming another buzzword, used as a mantra by some and derisively by others. It's already losing its root notions of upholding, supporting, preserving,--even cherishing, as well as restraining. It's a good word. We shouldn't turn it into jargon, but rather attend to its richness. We need to participate in all of its meanings if we're to temper the rapid, mindless, heedless, and perhaps inexorable destruction of habitat, species, cultures, and the very ways of life that allowed us to emerge into the modern world.

In many religious traditions, even those that arose where there were only two real seasons, this time of year found people celebrating first fruits: the biggest harvest festivals of the year. We commemorate the season in the U. S. after the harvest is in, the jam has been made, the pickles put up, the seeds gathered, and the root cellar stocked to tide us through the winter. We call it Thanksgiving and attribute the holiday to an almost mythical event in American history, but its practice is similar to much earlier celebrations. I'm reminded of my favorite Hebrew prayer, the Shehecheyanu, which is said frequently during the year, notably at the beginnings of festivals and holidays, and has special poignancy at harvest time:

Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the world,
Who has kept us in life, sustained us,
and brought us to this moment.

I only hope that the idea of sustainability--creating the ability to sustain ourselves--doesn't get lost in all of the election and economic hoopla playing out on the news these days. It seems that anybody who talks about co-operation and sustenance is being branded a Socialist, and the idea of sacrificing wants in an effort to create an economy that supplies needs is being called Communist (and its clear that only cartoon definitions of either are being evoked), so the rhetoric will have to be tempered if we're to get back to talking about what we're leaving our children and grandchildren.

If we don't begin to talk more seriously about sustainability, and to act accordingly, the opportunity to address looming problems may disappear altogether. Predatory practices in the market seem to have buried whatever benefits might have existed under deregulation, and some serious reconsideration of the nature and scope of Capitalism seems to be occurring (see, for example, John Kenneth Galbraith's new book, The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too).

But economics, because it affects all of us, shouldn't just be the purview of theorists, and the better you and I understand what's going on, the better prepared we will be to make sound decisions in the voting booth over the next decade. Sustainable choices and market economies can actually work, as John Ikerd (an agricultural economist, who wrote Sustainable Capitalism: A Matter of Common Sense) and others have noted, even if they require careful thinking--and rethinking. Just because we're not all farmers doesn't mean we can't embrace agriculture as a metaphor, and see land stewardship as a model for better living. Our national roots reach deeply into this country's soil, and a careful study of those roots seems to be in order. This conversation should not be about who's a "Socialist" and who's a "Real American." It should be about going out and milking that cow.

In his 1980 essay, "Solving for Pattern," Wendell Berry offered some sound advice about how to create human solutions, grounded in specific human virtues. One such virtue is restraint, which he defines as "the ability to accept and live within limits; to resist changes that are merely novel or fashionable; to resist greed and pride; to resist the temptation to 'solve' problems by ignoring them, accepting them as 'trade-offs,' or bequeathing them to posterity."

Restraint is in short supply these days, but I look forward to the day when I don't have to rail constantly against greed and excess. The only way that'll happen, however, is if we can become a more educated electorate, and heed Berry's increasingly timely advice.

Sources for Wendell Berry quotations: "The Mad Farmer March" from A Part, North Point Press, 1980. "Solving For Pattern" was printed in The Gift of Good Land, Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural, North Point Press, 1981.

Photo credits:
Strohräder (Straw bale) by Walter Pilsak; Pumpkins, by Yolan Chériaux. Both from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A Need-based Economy

"Sustainability" has become such a buzzword these days that it's equated with the superficiality of "green" programs in sprawling, rapidly growing suburbs in areas only marginally capable of sustaining them at all. Any time people start throwing buzzwords and catchphrases around, they're on their way to becoming cliches, and their meaning in danger of being lost. But many readers of this blog have pointed out that something is better than nothing when it comes to the environment, no matter how little or how insincere, so I've learned to put up with it.

However, recent worldwide economic events have only brought the bare-assed emperor into the sunlight, and most of the band-aid efforts of the last couple of weeks are going to do little to cover him up. They're more like loose patches over an open wound. Only if we manage to keep sustainable living out of the landfill of overused tropes and in the forefront of the discussion of how we might live do we stand a real chance of surviving the present.

As I see it, the underlying problem is that our economy has nothing to do with home--with the understanding and management of the oikos that the Greeks were talking about when they coined the word "economics" in the first place. Of course, the slave-based, male-centered oikos is itself a lousy model for how we should live, but it did amount to a small-scale, hearth-centered, sustainable effort, with little negative effect on the environment.

Coincidentally enough, the term "domestic" arises from the Roman version of the oikos--the domus (the image above is a model of a self-contained Roman household). The term "domestic economy," therefore, is a bit redundant. But "economy" today refers to such a vast, convoluted, confused, and ill-defined entity that it's almost meaningless. The local household is all but obscured in the machinations of the market, even though it's at the center of the mortgage meltdown. And at the heart of the mortgage crisis is the idea of dwelling as commodity: something to be bought and sold, and only peripherally to house the "American Dream" that has since become a parody of itself: Ozzie, Harriet, their children, and their dog in a Little Box on a quiet street in Anytown, USA.

In order to maintain the semblance of dream-achievement, people work for too many hours and pay outrageous prices for ticky-tacky houses with too much floor space in gated communities; they enroll their children in too many activities and let them spend too much time watching television or playing video games. And then when their absurdly complex mortgages balloon into the stratosphere, they lose it all, and the so-called "domestic economy" fails.

In the nineteenth century, William Morris saw all this coming, and tried to imagine what a need-based economy would look like. News From Nowhere pictures people living small-scale lives where they produce what they need, make it beautiful, and enjoy a richness of community engagement almost unimaginable today. When I wrote More News From Nowhere, I was trying to imagine what we would have to "give up" today in order to achieve Morris's utopian dream. I have no illusions about the possibility of achieving any of what either of us created, and that's why they're both the stuff of hope and imagination rather than of reality.

That's not, however, to say that none it is possible. So I thought I'd include in this post a little list of Good Things To Read that offer me a tiny bit of hope that we might be able to switch paths and, now that capitalism-as-we-know-it is showing its true colors, find a different one, more carefully centered on what human beings really need: food, clothing, shelter, community, and justice.

From New Scientist this week, a special report on How our economy is killing the earth. Some of the articles are free online (premium subscribers have access to them all, or you can pick up the print edition at some US bookstores), including Why politicians dare not limit economic growth.

A recent article from Orion by Chris Carlson talks about Building an anti-economy; there's a lively conversation going on in the accompanying forum as well.

From the May/June issue of Orion Jeffrey Kaplan's exposure of the Gospel of Consumption offers some insights into the nature of work as defined by the current economy--and how things could be lots better.

The more I read Thomas Friedman's analyses of current events, the more I appreciate his perspective. His new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded made it to the top of the New York Times best seller list with good reason. Friedman's views are clearly articulated, and he actually offers remedies. I don't agree with everything he proposes, but his approach is generally more practical than I tend to be, and his ideas do have a better chance of actually being implemented than mine do. Also, he doesn't need a wormhole to get where he wants to go.

I fully understand the need for practical solutions in a world gone nuts. But without alternatives to the intellectual poverty we're suffering from today, and a good healthy injection of innovative concepts and reflective thinking about how we got where we are and how we can go somewhere else, we'll keep falling into the patterns we've established for ourselves--patterns that are becoming deeper and deeper ruts from which it's getting harder to extract ourselves. Just because something is the case doesn't mean it has to be. If anything at all beneficial has emerged from the current situation it's that people do seem to have recognized the need for radical rethinking on both local and global issues. Replacing greed with need seems to be a good place to start.

Images: Model of a Roman domus at the archaeological site in Vaison-la-Romaine, France. Photo by Ohto Kokko. Portrait of William Morris by George Frederick Watts. Both courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Involuntary Frugality

The news these past couple of weeks has been dreary. I find myself reading the financial pages of the local rag, rather than simply sticking to regional and national news, just to find out what business people are writing about. But the situation's irony hasn't escaped me. The economy itself is accomplishing what all the philosophical prattle of folks like me--pleading for us to mend out ways, spend less, live more lightly on our planet, and stop buying stuff we don't need--has failed to bring about in recent years. The financial world, all in a tizzy because the ground beneath their collective feet is giving way after years of illogical, unethical, and, yes, stupid practices, is now scrambling for ways to keep it out of the grave it's dug for itself.

Financial whiz kid Paul Kedrosky was predicting a new wave of frugality back in September (Frugality is the New Black), and although that seems years ago now, at this point he sounds like a prophet.

The papers and blogs are full of laments about what a lean Christmas everyone will have, being "forced to cut back" on such lifestyle givens as eating out and "going shopping whenever I feel like it." I hear women around here exclaim, in true dismay, that they can't afford to buy that cute little number at Chico's after all. How they fit all that stuff into their closets in the first place is beyond me, but these ladies are truly (to them) hurting. Their way of life, fostered by our collectively greedy culture, is in real danger.

I've posted before (in "Muddling Toward Frugality" back in January) about the "simple living" people (whose bible is RealSimple magazine; it's not really about an Amish-like simplicity; it's about "making life easier") and their buy-more-stuff-to-organize-your-stuff mentality, and it's going to be interesting to see how even good companies like Container Store (with its well-treated workforce and cushy benefits) will fare if the downturn continues for any length of time. Because one of the first things to be crossed off the shopping list is the fancy cedar hanger or the dress bag to hold the new outfit you didn't buy after all.

Of course, even though we are starting to pay down debt and save a bit of cash, all of this not-buying has to have some kind of negative effect on a greed-based, advertising-fed economy. If consumers don't buy more and more, and indeed end up buying less and less, surely that's going to send more retailers belly up. If people hang on to their old cars, rather than buying new ones, or choose to "buy down" (smaller, less expensive, more fuel-efficient models), surely the auto makers are going to have to scale down as well. Merger talks are under way as I type between General Motors and Chrysler, with the help of the Cerberus Capital Management group (still guarding the gates of hell?), and that can't be good news for workers.

I wonder if it occurs to them that building better (rather than bigger, fancier) cars--those meant to last, protect the safety of their passengers, and cost less to run--might be a way of rebuilding the industry. Imagine a company that invests in offering high-quality (rather than over-priced) maintenance services, builds cars in a carbon-neutral factory, and spends far less money on advertising (letting the cars advertise themselves) so that it can provide good wages and benefits without the union's having to strike for them? What if consumers weren't urged to buy a new car every few years, but rather to invest in maintaining the ones they already owned? What if a car were an instrument of transportation rather than a status symbol?

In this weekend's News, a feature article in the style section touted the "new old house" concept being developed around the area, with one such development right here in McKinney. The idea that ahistorical facades with two-storey entryways (not really porches) and cutesy turrets on every other house may not appeal to sensible people is finally making its way onto local builders' radar. But houses that reflect more the styles built around the turn of the nineteenth century, like this Tudor revival cottage in Austin, are gaining in popularity. The newer versions aren't a whole lot smaller than typical McMansions, but they're based on what passes for vernacular architecture in north Texas: prairie style foursquares and bungalows, and revival styles with a bit of Victorian whimsy, some exterior charm, and real front porches for visitin' with neighbors. They're still pretty pricey and feature more square footage than anyone really needs, so I'm waiting for Sarah Susanka's "not-so-big house" to catch on here, and I'm not holding my breath. If the economy stays on the skids for a bit longer, though, perhaps smaller houses will catch on. What they're going to do with all the characterless monster houses already built, I don't know. Maybe cities can tear them down and use the bricks to build sidewalks so people will be encouraged to drive less.

I doubt that the current situation will do all that much to rob us of our greed and nudge us too far toward sustainability. But I will be keeping an eye on the market, not just to see how much farther in value my measly retirement fund has fallen, but to see if we really retain anything from these hard lessons.

Pop quiz in the morning. The final exam will be cumulative.

Photo credits: Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Why there is something rather than nothing

This last week, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physics for discoveries concerning the concept of broken symmetry. The awardees, Yoichiro Nambu, Makoto Kobayashi, and Toshihide Maskawa, were all born in Japan, but Nambu (who garnered half of the prize) is a US citizen and works out of the Fermi Institute at the University of Chicago.

Now what, one might thoughtfully ask, has this got to do with home and hearth?

For one thing, these three gentlemen figured out why it is that we can even exist in this universe. At all. Broken symmetry is one of those ideas that's actually central to a theory of everything, in that it answers the question of why is there something rather than nothing--a question raised primarily in theological circles and regarded by some as a central issue in philosophy. This question never really perplexed me particularly because 1) Who cares? I mean, there is something, so why is why a problem? and 2) If there is a problem, physicists will certainly figure it out eventually.

And, indeed, these three guys did. The basic idea as explained on All Things Considered the other day, is that if there were perfect symmetry between matter and anti matter, nothing would exist because the two would cancel one another out. But the fact that the symmetry was broken, and there's more matter than anti matter, is why there's stuff rather than no stuff.

I can't even begin to understand all the forces involved in this, or even the basic physics underlying the process. But the Wikipedia article on spontaneous symmetry breaking is pretty helpful, and so is PhysOrg's article, Broken Symmetry: Answering the Solace of Quantum.

Were it not for this particular phenomenon, I wouldn't have to worry about learning to love the prairie. I suppose I could wax all kinds of poetic about what it all means, but for the moment, I'm just happy that these three men were finally recognized for work that helps me understand my universe just a little bit better.

Now, if CERN can get the Large Hadron Collider back online, it will have been a good year for particle physics.

Image credit: Big Bang, by Cédric Sorel, via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Baseball and Melancholy

One thing about Cubs fans is that we never really do expect to win. I mean, we can have a great season, with a terrific record, and go on to blow it in the division playoffs, even if we've beaten the opposing team several times during the regular season. Or we get a little further into things and some fan catches the wrong ball and it's all over.

This year would have been a great one for winning the World Series, though: the hundredth anniversary of the last time the Cubs became the champs.

But perhaps not winning is what helps makes Cubs fans who they are, as if a certain post-season sadness were part of our character. After all, we've still got Wrigley Field, and the ivy, and one of the best in-park experiences in baseball. As traditional baseball parks drop off the map, to be replaced by bigger and "better" ones with sky boxes for rich folk, Wrigley remains staunchly American. Everyman's ballpark. You can still mark the seasons by the condition of the ivy on the brick wall.

I miss that ivy. Some of it (from a cutting) grew on a wall behind our flat on Seminary, only a block and a half from the Field. Among my fondest Chicago memories is puttering around in my garden while a game was going on, listening to the announcements and the cheering (or groaning) crowd, and Harry Caray leading the fans in "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh inning stretch. But that ivy really is a phenological marker. In the spring, at the beginning of the season, the outfield wall looks really scraggly, before it leafs out. And at the end of the season (which has been, more often than not, the end of the season at Wrigley), the barest hint of color starts to tinge the edges of the leaves. After everybody's gone home for the year, the ivy looks like the photo at the beginning of this post.

Perhaps the reason why baseball is the only sport I truly love is that it's laced with metaphor, and tied to place. In a World Series without a favorite team, I'll inevitably root for whichever team I've seen play, in a place where I've lived--southern California, Philadelphia, Chicago. Even Texas, if it ever comes to that. For me it's not a real summer without at least one game, and I've learned to live with the Rangers, just as I've more or less learned to live on the prairie. This year we went to the last Sunday home game, against the Angels, who beat the home team soundly. We sat just a few rows behind the visiting dugout, and I even managed to get some decent photos with my iPhone.

When George Carlin died, last June, in the middle of baseball season, the first clip I got online to watch was his hilarious take on the differences between football and baseball. Long after I forget which seven words we can't say on TV, I'll remember this bit.

And now summer has come and gone, and the Cubs are out of contention, and so are the Angels (one of my childhood favorite teams; I graduated from high school near Anaheim), and along with the equinox and yesterday's cold front, fall is making itself official. I won't be as interested as I thought I'd be in the outcome of the World Series this year. But as the playoffs wind down and the contenders are resolved, I'll get into the spirit despite the fact that I really don't care who wins. It's the game that's important, after all, and getting home, safe. And, of course, there's always next year.

Photos: Boston Ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata), the species that grows at Wrigley, by John Delano; Cubs Win by L. B. Jacob, both from Wikimedia Commons. Angels fans celebrating a couple of runs on September 22, at the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Poem in October

Now that the throes of finals grading are behind me (at least for another eleven weeks), I've had a little time to reflect on seasonal changes--something I like to do around equinoxes and solstices, but had to postpone because of the usual end-of-quarter mishegoss. This time of year usually finds me fraught with homesickness, and so I've used a wonderful autumn photo of the Sierras near my Dad's home town to open this post.

In my continuing effort to mark the seasons in this place, and to develop some enduring level of affection for the suburbanized prairie, I wandered my increasingly disheveled property this morning. The equinox occurred late last month, with little fanfare. No "weather" (which, in North Texas, means that it's been pleasant--dry, cool, relatively ozone-free), no catastrophes since Ike. It was actually Gustav who turned the season around for us, and brought us out of summer. We got little from Ike, but it kept things cool. At any rate, it's now fall, the flowers are fading, and the seasonal turn needs marking.

This is the time of year, too, that always brings poetry to mind--especially poetry of place. And since my daughter is well into her "thirtieth year to heaven" (she turns 30 next June), I thought of Poem in October by Dylan Thomas, whose unfailing ability to evoke his physical environment also came to mind as I strolled around in the back yard. Our landscapes have little in common, but there are moments at which our worlds touch briefly and then carom away from one another:

A springful of larks in a rolling
Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling
Blackbirds and the sun of October
On the hill’s shoulder,
Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
Come in the morning where I wandered and listened
To the rain wringing
Wind blow cold
In the wood faraway under me.

Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
With its horns through mist and the castle
Brown as owls
But all the gardens
Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales
Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
There could I marvel
My birthday
Away but the weather turned around.

No hills here, and the day is already fair, and if the weather turns around it'll bring welcome rain, but there are blackbirds (a cacophony of them this morning: grackles, cowbirds, starlings, and even--for reasons I don't understand at all--a redwing). Fading summer is palpable in the garden, where the tomato vines have fruited again and there will be a few peppers, but the plants themselves are wan and scraggly. I've had to water twice this week to keep them from giving up the ghost. The barred owls have made themselves known again, but in the distance now--not like spring, when they're making porn movies in the trees outside my windows.

Leaves are beginning to drift down on the little patio Beloved Spouse recently constructed between the study window and the potting shed. I've moved a couple of chairs there, and our ice chest, and might get a pot or two of seasonal posies to brighten it up. Eventually it'll have alyssum growing around it, and I'll add a cafe table, and maybe even an arbor to cover it. With grapes, perhaps. Some day.

During October, Beloved Spouse and I also celebrate his birthday, and the anniversary of Sputnik (both events took place in October, 1957). I remember my father's saying to me after the launch was announced, "Some day those things will be all over the sky." Sure enough, by the time I was a teenager, my grandmother and I would sit outside her house on a clear night and watch satellites go by--sometimes two or three on an evening. Of course, here, only thirty miles north of Dallas (the route to which is lined with suburbs) with the usual combination of city lights and haze, it's hard enough to see stars, let alone satellites.

Add to all of this the coming of the Jewish New Year, and a sense of renewal, newness, beginnings and starting over. The Worm Ouroboros that swallows its own tail; the end of one thing and the beginning of another. Many Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur the way Gentiles celebrate December 31, only with more ritual and seriousness. But this is a harvest festival, and the celebration of first fruits as much as a renewal. We make account of our errors and strive for betterment, and we enjoy the harvest of pears (and, in alternate years, pecans).

I went out on my own front porch in the middle of September to see the Harvest moon rising hugely, but my favorite full moon happens this month: the Hunter's moon, when the trees have lost a lot of their leaves already, and it's easier to see rising. One of the projects I have on the back burner is to photograph the full moon each month for a year. I meant to start with the Harvest moon, but end-of-quarter distractions made me forget, so it'll have to wait until the fourteenth, when I'll probably think of Dylan Thomas again, and remember other bits of the poem, and relish the season, and mark the moment:

And there could I marvel my birthday
Away but the weather turned around. And the true
Joy of the long dead child sang burning
In the sun.
It was my thirtieth
Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.

But now I've got to go work on pear conserve, and sweep the squirrel-borne detritus (half-munched bits of immature pecans everywhere) off the driveway so I can stop tracking pecan shells and guts into the house every time I come back inside. And then it's back to work on prep for the fall quarter: a new batch of students (180 or so of them), and a course I haven't taught in a year (Visual Anthropology) to keep things interesting.

Photo credits: A lovely shot of Norman Clyde Peak's northeast face in autumn, seen from Big Pine Creek, by Justin Johnsen via Wikimedia Commons. The last Rose of Sharon in my garden, and the last few tomatoes, still green.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Universe and Everything

This week marks the lighting of the fire (as it were) under the Large Hadron Collider on the border between France and Switzerland. I have mixed feelings about this event for several reasons.

First of all, it could have been us, here in North Texas, whacking atoms together and discovering all manner of stuff about the origins of the universe. Back in the 90s, the Super-conducting Super Collider was being built just south of Dallas (in the town of Waxahachie, which, rather ironically, sports even more nineteenth-century houses than McKinney does). But the gummint (the Clinton administration and Congress, to be specific) pulled the plug when it looked like the budget would exceed 12 billion bucks. (Now that's an earmark. But I'm not convinced it was pork.)

In one sense, this is one more example of how short-sighted we tend to be as a nation, and one of the problems with the kind of immediate-results capitalism we practice. If it's not going to show a profit in six months, we ain't doin' it. Long-term investment is for old fogeys and ivory tower intellectuals. Bring on the day-traders and the stock-market gamblers (and the sub-prime mortgage racketeers), but don't invest in the future unless somebody guarantees that it will lead to big bucks, real soon. Don't ever do anything purely for the sake of science or understanding.

Of course, we don't teach science properly in schools, either, which is why we couldn't get anybody fired up about the Collider and its potential for answering all manner of questions about the beginnings of life, the universe, and everything (the answers probably being somewhat more complex than "42"). I'm pretty sure I'm the only person I know with a picture of the guts of the LHC displayed on my desktop as wallpaper. And I really don't know squat about physics.

But I know enough to maintain some trust that these guys know what they're doing. I hung around with a number of Nobel-prize-winner-spawn at Penn (in addition to the fact that my former father-in-law edited Physical Review Letters and I saw a lot of high-powered physicists in action), and these guys knew their stuff. They were, even back in the seventies, talking about what we might learn from developing an instrument that could smack particles together at enormous speeds and create--what?

Here was the problem, to me: uncertainty. And I don't mean in Heisenberg's sense. I mean in the sense of "are we really wise enough to pull this off without destroying life as we know it?" Human beings are capable of magnificent flashes of intellectual power; but we can also be almost irretrievably stupid. We are capable of inventing all manner of ways to heal the sick, but we also have more ways of killing each other off than are necessary by any stretch of the imagination. So how do we know that these guys--who are now running atoms around a racetrack in order to make them collide at impossible speeds--know what they're doing?

Well, we don't. But I, for one, trust them. I don't equate this with faith, because faith doesn't require evidence, just belief. I don't believe that the LHC physicists and engineers know what they're doing; I simply trust them on the basis of their academic and professional credentials. Not only that, there are about 80 countries involved in the development of these projects--indicating that we're perfectly capable of working together to answer important, fundamental questions.

Perhaps I'm willing to cut them some slack (I am, after all, known for my critical stance regarding most technologies) because what they're doing is just so bloody cool. As a life-long science fiction buff, I've always been disappointed that we've done so little about getting out and exploring the universe. But now we're doing that--right here on Planet Earth.

If what's going on is unclear, I highly recommend the short video available on the CERN website, which focuses on the ALICE experiment now being undertaken. A longer film featuring physicist Brian Cox (with only one accent to deal with) is available from TED. Also recommended: an article from Seed magazine on "Why a Large Hadron Collider?" The irrepressible Stephen Hawking also talks about the project on BBC--and I have little trouble feeling comfortable with his assessments, since he's probably the smartest guy on the planet.

A couple of good blogs to look at for debunking predictions of catastrophe and dispelling fears of the apocalypse: New Scientist's Short Sharp Blog entry, and this one from The Biologista.

For the naysayers who are still afraid of doomsday, you can check in at this website for reassurance:

This morning, once again, I woke up in the known universe; so things seem to be going well so far.

September 27 update: Well, things haven't gone as well as expected. CERN announced on September 18 that the LHC would be offline for the rest of the year, due to electrical problems. For the full story see this article in Wired online.

Photo: The CMS silicon tracking detector, which measures the three-dimensional positions of charged particles as they travel through it, allowing measurement of their momentum; a diagram of the major experiments. Both courtesy CERN.