Is Anybody Listening? Voter Apathy on Climate Change

American media should be ashamed! Here we are, facing an unparalleled survival crisis, yet the absence of climate change from Thursday’s Democrat debate. (No opportunity for discussing the Green New Deal.) Then there is the apathy of many Americans. Three recent state voter surveys sadly show the absence of climate change as a top five issue for prospective voters. Meanwhile, the Trump assault on environment continues, with the Arctic opened this week to new oil exploitation, even as the world burns and the Arctic melts. I leave you this recent op-ed excerpt from Naomi Klein, one of our foremost writers on the subject: rj

“Wherever in the world they live, this generation has something in common: they are the first for whom climate disruption on a planetary scale is not a future threat, but a lived reality. Oceans are warming 40% faster than the United Nations predicted five years ago. And a sweeping study on the state of the Arctic, published in April 2019 in Environmental Research Letters and led by the renowned glaciologist Jason Box, found that ice in various forms is melting so rapidly that the ‘Arctic biophysical system is now clearly trending away from its 20th-century state and into an unprecedented state, with implications not only within but also beyond the Arctic.’ In May 2019, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services published a report about the startling loss of wildlife around the world, warning that a million species of animals and plants are at risk of extinction. ‘The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever,’ said the chair, Robert Watson. ‘We are eroding the very foundations of economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide. We have lost time. We must act now.´”

–rj

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Setting an Example: Berkeley Outlaws Natural Gas

The Berkeley City Council has unanimously voted to ban natural gas in all new construction, a move critics say imposes higher utility costs on the poor.

Beginning January 1, 2020, new homes, townhouses and small apartment buildings will be without hookups for stoves, hot water, laundry and heating. The ban ultimately includes large commercial structures and apartment dwellings. Electricity is the name of the game.

There are those who object to all of this. Natural gas, after all, typically runs at half the cost of electricity, heats our homes faster, and is there for us when the lights go out.

What’s more, most of California’s electricity grid is generated by dirty coal from other states. So much for going green!

But I disagree.

I commend Berkeley for its courageous, innovative move as America’s first city to impose a ban on natural gas. You may have heard that natural gas is not only a cheaper alternative fossil fuel, but runs cleaner than coal and oil. That’s not true. In fact it’s worse, with methane leakage at 3%.

As for the increasingly utilized gas extraction technology known as fracking, its emission rate of methane leakage exceeds that of conventional natural gas by 30%, according to an exhaustive Cornell study. It’s also a dirty, wasteful process with huge toxic effects.

Methane is an especially heat-trapping gas, exceeding carbon dioxide by 34%. Moreover, whether it derives from conventional or fracking sources, natural gas competes with transitioning to renewable clean energy sources such as wind and solar, pivotal to limiting climate change and fostering the well-being of our children. It’s the very basis of the Council’s move. In a world winding down, later comes too late.

Sometimes considered a “bridge” fuel, the reality is that every fracking gas source comes on line with a life expectancy of 30-50 years, justifying a return on investor capital in the billions. This comes at a time when according to many climatologists, we’ve only twelve years to move the needle and mitigate catastrophic consequences for all life on earth.

Since we’re also talking about the cost to the poor, the dreadful reality is that POC are already paying a grievous price, often living near pollution sources. As the NAACP rightly points out, “race – even more than class – is the number one indicator for the placement of toxic facilities in this country. And communities of color and low income communities are often the hardest hit by climate change.”

I can’t go into the logistics in a brief post, but I believe it’s imperative we alter our GDP addiction with its “growth is good” mentality to a paradigm of social justice and economic parity that a green economy potentially fosters and without it cannot succeed. Why should 1 % own half the nation’s wealth?

We’re talking about saving life on earth! That’s you and me and the other guy, too! It begins with what we do now and the sincerity that tests our commitment. Yes, it’s going to hurt us, not only in the pocket book, but in our very lifestyles, eliminating those options we took for granted as piecemeal to the good life.

Let’s me put it this way: If you needed medical intervention, would you really opt for the less reliable, local guy over the more costly, but skilled and seasoned Mayo surgeon if it came down to saving your life? Can you put a price tag on survival?

But here’s some good news: A study by Energy+Environmental Economics found that transitioning to clean electricity-powered appliances in new construction would allow developers to build more affordable homes more quickly, resulting in considerable consumer savings. (No natural gas connection or internal plumbing.)

Berkeley knows the score. Twenty-five percent of California’s climate pollution comes from homes and buildings using fossil fuels. It comprises 27% of Berkeley’s greenhouse gas emissions. They chose a fossil fuel free future.

As for ourselves, we moved to Santa Fe, NM last summer and found natural gas pervasive in the community, with our house part of the grid. I’ve always been afraid of natural gas with its potential for leaks and explosions. I lost two family members from carbon monoxide. In a previous Minnesota home, I thought I smelled gas and called the gas company. I was right.

When they did the house inspection here in Santa Fe, I learned that the previous owner’s newly installed gas stove leaked carbon monoxide when you turned on the oven, common to high altitude country like New Mexico.

That was enough for us, yet shopping at the local Home Depot, we found only gas ranges and had to order our electric one. As for our washer and dryer, they’re now on electric, too.

Yes, we shoveled out some dough, but we go to bed each night with a pretty good chance of seeing daylight. Count me in on the safety factor!

In California, fossil fueled buildings and homes contribute to 25% of the state’s climate pollution as well as considerable financial outlays for asthma victims, many of them children and the poor.

Now, some fifty or more American cities, including San Francisco, are studying Berkeley’s move.

Thank you, Berkeley!

–rj

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Ithaca, NY: A Best City

Ithaca, New York, at the southern end of Cayuga Lake, is a progressive town of about 30,000 people and hub to one of the state´s prettiest areas of undulating rural greenery, consisting of vineyards, apple orchards, pastoral farms and scattered water bodies known as the Finger Lakes.

I´ve never been to Ithaca, but it´s one place I wish I had. Everything I read about it tells me it’s a very broad minded place known for its demographic diversity and liberal cultural milieu, anchored by Ivy League Cornell University and Ithaca College. Like Chapel Hill where I went to grad school, it stands out as a blue dot, defiant and steadfast, surrounded by a sea of political red.

Ithaca has been consistently rated as one of America’s most livable college cities. Vegan and gay friendly, it’s home to the legendary Moosewood Cafe, made famous by its cookbooks. In 1997, Utne Reader deemed it “America’s most enlightened city.”

Alex Haley (Roots, The Biography of Malcolm X) was born here. Among its most famous residents was Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita).

I got interested in the place years ago when I found out that Carl Sagan taught at Cornell for many years and Diane Ackerman, one of my favorite essayists whose books on nature read like poetry, lives there.

A hilly city beautified by its gorges and waterfalls and must see Cornell Botanic Gardens sprawling over 4000 acres, Ithaca happens to be blessed with a vibrant environment ethic. Nearby, three state parks offer multiple hiking trails, camping and scenic vistas.

Every fall, its population swells with the influx of young people, yet Ithaca attracts retirees as well, despite its snowy winters.

I´m proud of Ithaca for standing tall to corporate gas interests (Millennium Pipeline and others), who a few years ago wanted to bring fracking to the area, stirring up a hornet’s nest.

A gateway Cornell study (2011) had revealed hydraulic fracking to be considerably more dangerous than even coal and oil in contributing to climate change in its inevitable association with methane leakage. As biochemist Robert Howarth pointed out in the study, methane poses a warming potential eighty-six times greater than that of carbon dioxide.

In short, natural gas isn’t the clean alternative touted by its supporters. Mostly methane, even small leaks are significant. Shale gas, which involves fracking, can emit an average 8% methane leakage over the life of a shale well.

Although it was Governor Cuomo who ultimately imposed a state-wide ban on hydraulic fracking in 2014, it came only after Cornell’s monumental study along with the efforts of the Ithaca-based Park Foundation and concerned townsfolk that brought the issue into public gaze.

Credit is also due to renowned Ithaca College biologist and author Sandra Steingraber with her expertise on the link between toxic chemicals and cancer (Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment).

As a teenager, I used to go to summer camp at nearby Lake Canandaigua and remember its bucolic beauty to this day. Thankfully, it remains..

–rj

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And a Child Shall Lead Them

Image result for greta thunberg

Today, May 24, was another walk-out-of-school day for thousands of children in 110 countries, urging their governments to take quick and meaningful action to avert environmental catastrophe. If only the politicians, and us, for that matter, would listen.

It’s certainly, if nothing else, gotten the climate crisis considerable media attention. Of course, it’s 16-year old Greta Thunberg of Sweden who started it all and is featured on the cover of TIME’s current issue as one of the most influential young people in the world. Just nine months ago, Greta stood alone outside the Swedish Parliament, carrying a sign proclaiming SKOLSTREIK FOR KLIMATET (School Strike for Climate).

Seemingly a brave, but naive and futile gesture of a teenager, it’s become a planted seed grown into a world-wide groundswell of young people taking climate change seriously. And why shouldn’t they, since their generation and their children will be affected most?

I like the way she articulates our crisis: “I believe that once we start behaving as if we were in an existential crisis, then we can avoid a climate and ecological breakdown. But the opportunity to do so will not last for long. We have to start today.”

In March, Greta’s singular protest kindled an estimated 1.6 million young people turnout, encompassing some 133 countries.

Seems she’s even converted her own parents. Both have followed her into veganism as a way of contributing less CO2 and methane into the atmosphere. Greta’s mother, an opera singer, now travels by train rather than by air. Greta would probably love speaking in America, but since there’s no train track across the Atlantic, guess she’d have to resort to a freighter; that is, just so long as it wasn’t carrying oil barrels.

Imagine my surprise that not everyone admires this green movement Joan of Arc, one commentator dubbing her a “millenarian weirdo”:

It actually makes sense that Ms Thunberg – a wildly celebrated 16-year-old Swede who founded the climate-strike movement for schoolkids – should sound cultish. Because climate-change alarmism is becoming ever stranger, borderline religious, obsessed with doomsday prophecies (Brian O’Neill, wattsupwiththat.com).

I should point out that O’Neill writes for a smart aleck anti-climate change blog, so I can’t take him seriously, given the estimated 97% of scientists who embrace the reality of climate change and the humans factor for its origin.

Others use Greta’s Asperger’s Syndrome against her in myriad personal attacks, mocking her monotone delivery and fixed stare. I like Greta’s nimble response: “Being different is a gift.”

My heart pounds for you, Greta! I have friends who exalt in nature, yet never join that needed protest to universalize our climate crisis into action that saves both nature and ourselves.

You’ve been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Is there anybody more deserving?

–r. joly

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Coming to Our Senses

Image result for amphibiansindangerDo you remember any of those asteroid disaster movies? Depending on how you do the counting, there were at least seven of these goosebump films, assuring you nightly bouts with insomnia. One of my favorites has to be Meteor (1979), staring Sean Connery. That ominous prelude:

Its power is greater than all hydrogen bombs. Its speed is higher than any rocket ever conceived. Its force can shatter continents. Its mass can level mountain ranges. It cannot think. It cannot reason. IT CANNOT CHANGE ITS COURSE.

In the movie, the danger was sufficient that both the United States and Soviet Union suspended their cold war animosity to mutually merge efforts to ward off an impending doomsday scenario.

Today, Earth faces an apocalyptic fate all too real, fostered not by a fast approaching asteroid straight out of science fiction, but largely of our own making in real time: climate change.

It’s difficult to believe that there are skeptics about something seemingly so obvious and menacing like climate change. A bit like believing the earth is flat. Several months ago, I actually had my barber tell me the earth was flat and I nearly fell out of the chair!

Between May 23 and May 26, or just a few days from now, elections for the European Parliament will take place. As a prelude, the German populist party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), hopes to augment its appeal by stridently dismissing human caused climate change as Klimawandelpanik (climate change panic). They are backed by the European Institute of Climate and Energy (EICK), a consortium of conservative scientists, with links to their counterparts in the United States.

In America, we of course have Donald Trump leading the anti-climate change brigade. Additionally, there are entities like the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow and the Heartland Institute, the latter funded by fossil fuel interests.

They argue that human induced climate change is simply an unsettled matter, with no definitive science resolving the issue. To buttress their claims they like to draw on the The Petition Project that presents 31,000 signatories from the science community, supporting the conclusion that “there is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth´s atmosphere” (Petition Project).

In rebuttal, co-authored consensus studies of climate change by seven eminent scientists averaged a 97% probability of human causation (John Cook, et al). I should point out that far more than seven scientists have underscored the human factor. What happens is that when research establishes probability, scientists move on. Why belabor the obvious?

And then there’s the science of climatology, which exceeds meteorology, the latter fairly reliable for short term forecasts we’re accustomed to getting daily on our TVs or smart phones. Climatologists, in contrast to meterologists, can pickup likely long term weather patterns; let’s say, for example, fifty years into the future through applied physics, computer models, and statistical analysis. Overwhelmingly, given the current projections of rising atmospheric temperatures, the future weather landscape poses survival implications for a vastly changed earth.

Even when we humans accept climate change as a reality (very true these days in Europe), we’re wired through evolution to take stock of palpable, more immediate threats such as job loss, divorce, a declining economy, or possible physical danger such as a street mugging, not abstract, long-range scenarios. It doesn’t affect me now, so why bother?

We judge weather short-term through memory and emotion, not seeing developing long term patterns. Climate change thus poses a peculiar, subtle kind of threat, silent, ubiquitous, insidious, and unrelenting.

In the meantime, we know that climate change is accelerating with devastating consequences and that we are its seminal source. We’ve had several recent United Nation reports on the imperiled status of the Earth, but now comes its sobering May 6, 2019 findings:

1. One million of some 8 million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction. Flora and fauna that form vital components of an ecological complex vital to our survival should be as imperative a priority as climate change. 66% of marine life and 75% of land environments have been “severely altered,” according to the report. Ten percent of insects, 40% of amphibians, 33% of marine mammals, and a third of reef-forming corals face extinction.

2. The impact of human population growth with its fossil fuel dependence,, urban growth, deforestation, expanding agriculture, excessive meat eating, ruthless plundering of exotic species, along with pollution, drives climate change and species extinction.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump has taken America out of the Paris Treaty, which at least attempted to set goals for diminishing carbon release into the atmosphere, and surrounded himself with lackeys denying climate change.

Concurrently, the Arctic and Antarctica continue their meltdown, the seas keep rising, and submerged coasts proliferate. Our oceans, covering 71% of the earth’s surface, grow polluted with human contaminants, much of it plastics. Alarmingly, water temperatures are rising, imperiling the Gulf Stream and Humboldt current on which much of Europe and the United States depend as moderating influences on climate.

Forest fires and drought have become common calendar features, not only in California, but globally. Heat waves scorch Siberia, while record floods inundate Midwest farmlands and hurricanes intensify and become more frequent.

Unfortunately, the seeds of our demise are primarily fueled by market economies with their dependency on growth, leading to still further decimation, not only of Nature, but from the economic inequity that results. Oxfam tells us that in 2016 the wealthiest 62 people owned half as much as the world’s poorest people.

Desperate people worry about their immediate needs, not nature. They farm animal sanctuaries, log and burn forest to expand grazing and plant palm plantations, fish the seas to exhaustion, poach elephants, rhinos and other game.

Alarmingly, a current 2019 Pew Research Center poll shows climate change hovering next to last place as a bottom priority with the economy, health care costs, and education taking the top tiers ([https://www.people-press.org/2019/01/24/publics-2019-priorities-economy-health-care-education-and-security-all-near-top-of-list/]

In America, some twenty Democrats have announced their candidacy for the presidency, yet only two as of this writing have a defined strategy for combating climate change! The leading candidate, Joe Biden, still finds a place for coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy. He seems not to have heard of the Green New Deal (GND), our best shot yet at slowing both climate change and eliminating the income disparity emanating from an exploitive economy dependent on fossil fuels.

I worry about my grandchildren. What kind of a world are we about to bequeath them?

If we can’t come to our senses, give-up our selfish behavior, change our priorities, persist in denying the seriousness of climate change and our complicity, then we are indeed in trouble, the quality of life itself profoundly diminished, if not imperiled.

As Mark Twain memorably put it, “Better to build dams than wait for a flood to come to its senses.”

–R. Joly

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Scrubbing George Washington from History: Who’s Next?

Just a few days ago comes news that a San Francisco school district is mulling getting rid of a series of murals honoring our first president because a commissioned working group alleges it’s traumatizing students.

Imagine my surprise that founding father George Washington is now under attack by politically enlightened, self-lacerating guardians of the public interest, bent on scrubbing the pantheon of American heroes clean in writing a revisionist history:

We come to these recommendations due to the continued historical and current trauma of Native Americans and African Americans with these depictions in the mural that glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc.

Seems our anointed censors will neither forgive nor forget that George was a slave owner and killed Native Americans in the French and Indian War. And, of course, we have to take into account its psychological fallout for students exposed daily to the murals.

Ironically, these murals were painstakingly done in 1936 by communist Victor Arnautoff, who simply wanted in his own words “to provoke a nuanced view of Washington’s legacy,” which the San Francisco United School District (SFUSD) has obviously misconstrued in its literalist approach.

Wonder what Dolly Madison would say about all of this.

But it doesn’t stop here. There’s Christ Church that Washington and his family attended in Alexandria, Virginia. Washington had purchased a family pew, marked by a plaque. Well, no more!

The plaques in our sanctuary make some in our presence feel unsafe or unwelcome. Some visitors and guests who worship with us choose not to return because they receive an unintended message from the prominent presence of the plaques.

Washington was a founding and contributing member of the congregation. Ironically, the church is located on North Washington Street. Y’uh thinking maybe they should move?

Last, but not least, comes this news from academia: Washington and Lee University board of trustees has decided on replacing portraits of Washington and Lee in military uniform with portraits of them in civilian garb.

In a formal statement, J. Donald Childress, rector of the board of trustees, and William C. Dudley, university president, said, “We appreciate the seriousness and thoughtfulness with which our fellow trustees have approached these matters. On behalf of the board, we want to express our gratitude to all of those members of the community who contributed to our deliberations, through countless letters and conversations over the summer and on campus this weekend. We are fortunate to be part of a community that cares deeply about this institution and is so dedicated to its continued success.”

Seems the leader of the Continental Army has been relieved of command.

I prefer distinguished American historian Fergus M. Bordewich’s take on these things in exclaiming it’s “a deeply wrongheaded habit to project today’s norms, values, ideals backwards in time to find our ancestors inevitably falling short. It betrays a very troubling intolerance of art and the ambiguity of art and the aspirations of art. It’s incredibly stupid if we try to erase history. It still happened, and you should argue about its meanings.”

–rj

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A weekend Romp with Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O'Keeffe at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, 1968

My  daughter has been visiting us the last several days in connection with her Amazon conference in Albuquerque. Since we moved to Santa Fe from Kentucky last July, she’s been curious to see what drew us here, so we’ve been showing her Santa Fe, “the city different,” and nearby vistas like Bandelier National Monument with its splendid canyons and Pueblo artifacts.

Saturday, we took in the local Georgia O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe, truly a best buy even at $13 a ticket, housing a generous number of her paintings, so many in fact, that the museum rotates their display. Founded in 1997, the museum lures many visitors, heedless of the calendar, and includes videos and lectures reviewing her life and artistry. It also serves as a major research center of modernist American art.

While a deservedly famous artist, initiates may find O’Keeffe often beyond reach since much of her work is abstract. As she tellingly phrased it, “I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at—not copy it.”

O’Keeffe’s considerable achievement—more than 2000 paintings— can understandably overwhelm. The consummate artist, it seems she devoted nearly every waking hour to her art, mastering many sub-genres, i.e., oil, charcoal, water color, and even with these, ever evolving.

Though I came to know her like many others as a landscape painter, flowers were a favorite subject and she would return to floral themes throughout her life. In all her art, whether of flowers, architecture, or rock formations, she concerned herself with extracting the minutiae hidden to most of us:

When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.

While not professing any creed, an essentially spiritual essence endows her canvas reminiscent of her beloved Goya, a sense of fusion between self and landscape, the ephemeral tempered by infinity, the primacy of sentiment over reason.

Unfortunately, as she aged, her vision progressively deteriorated as a result of macro-degeneration, ultimately reducing her to peripheral vision and compelling her to seek help in mixing colors. When the time came that she couldn’t paint, she turned to clay sculpturing, molding what she could know longer fully see.

On Sunday we took the ninety minute road trip to Ghost Ranch, where she spent her springs and summers painting just maybe New Mexico’s most exquisite red rock mesas:

Such a beautiful, untouched lonely feeling place, such a fine part of what I call the ‘Faraway’. It is a place I have painted before … even now I must do it again.

Ghost Ranch, locale for a number of Hollywood films and now a Presbyterian USA retreat center, tumbles across 21,000 acres.  It had been formerly a dude ranch hosting the wealthy.  O’Keeffe purchased twelve acres of it in 1940, now off limits to visitors.

You can, however, see her winter residence, owned by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, fifteen miles down the road in nearby Abiquiu. A designated historical site, O’Keeffe purchased the dilapidated 5000 foot colonial Spanish compound in 1945 and devoted three years to lovingly restoring it.

Image result for georgia o'keeffe abiquiu house

Her principal residence and studio, she lived here for 39 years, often painting from inside her bedroom window looking out on the Chama River valley.

As an adjunct to your visit, I’d highly recommend Lynes and Lopez’ fulsome Georgia O’Keeffe and Her Houses: Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu. The tour lasts about an hour, costs $40, and includes her large garden. Yes, she excelled at this as well! It’s a tour Karen and I await eagerly.

O’Keeffe first visited New Mexico in 1929 at the insistence of Taos art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan and, like so many other artists, fell in love with its stark landscape and ubiquitous solitude offering space from the constraints and snobbery of the New York artisan community to paint freely, returning seasonally for twenty years before making the state her permanent home in 1949 three years after the death of her husband, the renowned photographer and art connoisseur, Alfred Stieglitz.

She died on March 6, 1986 at age 98 in Santa Fe’s St. Vincent Hospital, her ashes scattered at her request on the top of Pedernal Mountain, a beloved vista she viewed daily at Ghost Ranch and frequent subject.

On our way back to Santa Fe, we took lunch at the charming Abiquiú Inn. A few steps away, you’ll find the recently opened O’Keeffe Welcome Center with its helpful staff, where you can book your tour and purchase O’Keeffe mementos.

–rj

 

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Oliver Sacks’ Ambivalence on Living in the Digital Age

Image result for Oliver Sacks

There isn’t anything I enjoy more in a stress-laden world than a time-out for a good read. Books lend me a purview of how others experience life, lending sagacity and connection with my fellows. Books teach me that I’m not alone.

Courtesy of The New Yorker (February 11, 2019), this morning I came upon Oliver Sacks’ restive short piece, ¨The Machine Stops.” Written in the last weeks of his impending death, the famed neurologist reflects on the fallout of living in the digital age.

Brilliant, cogent, unceasingly eloquent and abidingly compassionate, Sacks specialized in the eccentricities imposed by the brain, most famously in his Awakenings, later turned into one of the most compelling movies I’ve seen.

Sacks laments here the social distancing wrought by a technology that should be bringing us together, reminding me of Tolstoy’s initial response on seeing a film clip for the first time in his advanced years and countering that though this new technology was latent with promise, too often technology had been harnessed for ignoble ends.

Beginning with the ubiquitous cellphone, Sacks complains that he “cannot get used to seeing myriads of people in the street peering into little boxes or holding them in front of their faces, walking blithely in the path of moving traffic, totally out of touch with their surroundings. I am most alarmed by such distraction and inattention when I see young parents staring at their cell phones and ignoring their own babies as they walk or wheel them along. Such children, unable to attract their parents’ attention, must feel neglected, and they will surely show the effects of this in the years to come.”

In short, our digital milieu has decimated a once fecund public and private life, replacing social interchange with inferior virtual substitutes. I remember in my boyhood sitting with neighbors on stoops in Philadelphia on humid summer nights, conversing until the arrival of night’s cool breezes sweeping across the Delaware; houses teeming with porches where we played games, conversed, and shared neighborhood babble. Mornings, I’d grab my ball glove and saunter off to a crowded diamond. Those ball fields, in Philly and afar, lie increasingly vacant in these days of video games:

In similar vein, Sacks continues that he’s “confronted every day with the complete disappearance of the old civilities. Social life, street life, and attention to people and things around one have largely disappeared, at least in big cities, where a majority of the population is now glued almost without pause to phones or other devices—jabbering, texting, playing games, turning more and more to virtual reality of every sort.”

0ur personal lives have been turned inside out, our privacy invaded. Think of what Facebook has done with posts you thought were personal to your friends, or that daily invasion of your cell phone space by a stream of telemarketing calls, or the tracking of your computer viewing via cookies.

And then there’s that immense loss for our culture and, consequently, for ourselves in our spendthrift use of our time for trivialities, foreclosing on better priorities such as art, music, literature and science that have buttressed our civilization and refine our humanity, promoting sensitivity, tolerance, knowledge and wisdom. Inundated by media, we traffic in noise. Bored, we may not like ourselves. We no longer know how to sit still.

“Everything is public now, potentially, Sacks writes: one’s thoughts, one’s photos, one’s movements, one’s purchases. There is no privacy and apparently little desire for it in a world devoted to non-stop use of social media. Every minute, every second, has to be spent with one’s device clutched in one’s hand. Those trapped in this virtual world are never alone, never able to concentrate and appreciate in their own way, silently. They have given up, to a great extent, the amenities and achievements of civilization: solitude and leisure, the sanction to be oneself, truly absorbed, whether in contemplating a work of art, a scientific theory, a sunset, or the face of one’s beloved.”

The punchline of all this arrives for Sacks in his now retreating days of life when he conjectures the worth of a life lived for better values in a context of seemingly burgeoning social indifference:

“. . . it may not be enough to create, to contribute, to have influenced others if one feels, as I do now, that the very culture in which one was nourished, and to which one has given one’s best in return, is itself threatened. Though I am supported and stimulated by my friends, by readers around the world, by memories of my life, and by the joy that writing gives me, I have, as many of us must have, deep fears about the well-being and even survival of our world.”

And yet Sacks stubbornly defies those hovering specters of demise:

“Nonetheless, I dare to hope that, despite everything, human life and its richness of cultures will survive, even on a ravaged earth. While some see art as a bulwark of our collective memory, I see science, with its depth of thought, its palpable achievements and potentials, as equally important; and science, good science, is flourishing as never before, though it moves cautiously and slowly, its insights checked by continual self-testing and experimentation. I revere good writing and art and music, but it seems to me that only science, aided by human decency, common sense, farsightedness, and concern for the unfortunate and the poor, offers the world any hope in its present morass.”

I fervently hope along with you that Sacks’ midnight wager turns out right. But to paraphrase Keats, the thought paradoxically lingers in me: does Sacks “wake or sleep”?

—rj

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My Book Draw-List for 2019

One thing I like about any dawning New Year is the compiling of lists, which come in various genres like resolutions, lead events, best albums, movies, TV programs and, of course, roll calls of individuals who’ve passed before the New Year. Lists look back and sometimes forward.  Booklists are my favorite lists..

Kindle tells me I read 45 books last year and names them. This may not be quite true as some books I pursued were more for looking through than reading such as cookbooks; but then again, I read a few books outside Kindle’s purview last year.

Anyway, I’ve composed the following booklist for this new year to draw-on. I don’t seriously muse I’ll actually read every book here, or even most of them, but at least my list gives me a draw-bag of books I’ve found intriguing in ransacking the Internet, my email, literary magazines, publishing houses, book awards, and the press. A few of these books are re-reads, the highest compliment I can give a book.

Have I omitted books that should be here? Doubtless, though not necessarily intended, since there are so many good books out there. As scripture tells us, “ Of the making of books, there is no end.” By the same token, it’s probable I’ll add from time to time in our new year.

Last year I was working out in my local gym when I met a guy who shared he’d read 2000 books. Now that’s quite a feat, though I don’t know his time frame. I hope he chose his books well. I’ll never come close to his mark, but then I’m not trying to. The fun is in the journey.

BOOK DRAW-BAG for 2019

Amos Oz: A Tale of Love and Darkness.
Yuval Noah Harari. Homo Deus. A Brief History of Tomorrow.
Yuval Noah Harari. 2l Lessons for the 21st Century.
Tom Wolfe. Bonfire of the Vanities.
Stephen King. Different Seasons.
Elif Batuman. The Idiot.
Philip Squarzoni. Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science.
Diane Ackerman. A History of the Senses.
Annie Proulx. Barkskins.
Brian Doyle. The Plover.
Han Kang. The Vegetarian.
Kim Heacox. Jimmy Bluefeather.
Stefano Mancuso. Brilliant Green: The Surprising History. and Science of Plant Intelligence.
Naomi Klein. This Changes Everything: Capitalism Versus the Climate.
Paul Collier. Exodus: How Migration is Changing Our World.
John Dewey. Art as Experience.
William Finnegan. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.
Charlotte Gordan. The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her Daughter Mary Shelley.
Roy Baumeister and John Tierney. Will Power: Why Self-Control is the Secret to Success.
Amanda Palmer. The Art of Asking.
Jalal al-Din Rumi. The Essential Rumi. Tr. Coleman Barks.
Charles Mann. 1491.
Jonathan Brown. Misquoting Muhammed.
Philip Pullman. The Book of Dust.
Michael Connelly. Two Kinds of Truth.
Tony Morrison. Beloved.
James Baldwin. Go Tell it on the Mountain.
Margaret Atwood. The Handmaiden’s Tale.
Arundath Roy. The God of Small Things.
Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer. The Farm in the Green Mountains.
Norman Podhoretz. Making It.
Richard Powers.  The Overstory.
Rachel Kushner. The Mars Room.
Jordan. Peterson. 12 Rules for Life.
Patrick Barkham. Nature.
Anthony Doerr. All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel.
Brené Brown. Braving the Wilderness.
Barbara Ehrenreich. Natural Causes.
Colette. Vagabond.
Michael Harrington. Socialism: Past and Future.

–rj

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An Upstart Poet I Like a Lot

I’ve had this love affair with poetry since my earliest days, relishing metaphors that translate life from prose to camera, the sheer musicality of it, the crossword deliberation it compels, the tension of its paradoxes capturing life’s myriad, inherent subtleties; above all, its ability to mine deep, probing shafts of sub-subterranean memory and feeling I had thought beyond retrieve.

It follows then that I’m always on the lookout for good poets to swell the hosts of poets like Larkin, Wilbur, Pinsky, Levine and others that provide me good company in the winters as well as summers of life.

Just the other day I made a new acquaintance in pursuing my just in-the-mailbox New Yorker and immediately I knew I’d found a friend I wanted to keep.

Maybe you know him already, Gary J. Whitehead, though for me he’s a new artist in town and one I predict will swim into renown among aficionados of good poetry.

Whitehead, a Princeton grad and Teacher of the Year recipient, teaches English and Creative Writing at Tenafly high School in New Jersey and has received numerous awards for his verse.

How lucky can high students get to share class-time with the likes of a gifted artist like Whitehead! He’s published three collections of his poetry thus far with a fourth, Strange What Rises, about to be published.

You’ll find his poetry absent of the metaphysical, yet never banal in its quotidian pursuits captured in poems such as “Making Love In the Kitchen” and “Lot’s Wife,” which are uncanny for infusing metaphor into the prosaic small deeds and events of ordinary life, granting new ways of viewing their ritual component in our lives. In this, he reminds me a lot of the late Richard Wilbur.

I especially like his passion, which is nice to come upon in an often circumscribed aesthetic aloofness among poets. I think passion frequently makes for good teaching as well. Perhaps it’s this passion that churns my emotions into butter whenever I read Gerard Manley Hopkins, just maybe my favorite old-time poet who passed so terribly young and unrecognized.

Let me try this early Whitehead poem (2002) on you and see if it fits. I think you’ll see what I‘ve been saying:

First Year Teacher to His Students

Go now into summer, into the backs of cars,
into the black maws of your own changing,
onto the boardwalks of a thousand splinters,
onto the beaches of a hundred fond memories
in wait, where the sea in all its indefatigability
stammers at the invitation. Go to your vacation,

to the late morning cool of your basement rooms,
the honeysuckle evening of the first kiss, the first
dip and pivot, swivel and twist. Go to where
the clipper ships sail far upriver, where the salmon
swim in the clean, cool pools just to spawn.
Wake to what the spider unspools into a silver

dawn dripping with light. Sleep in sleeping bags,
sleep in sand, sleep at someone else’s house
in a land you’ve never been, where the dreamers
dream in a language you only half understand.
Slip beneath the sheets, slide toward the plate,
swing beneath the bandstand where the secret

things await. Be glad, or be sad if you want,
but be, and be a part of all that marches past
like a parade, and wade through it or swim in it
or dive in it with your eyes open and your mind
open to wind, rain, long days of sun and longer
nights of city lights mixing on wet streets like paint.

Stay up so late that you forget day-of-the-week,
week-of-the-month, month-of-the-year of what
might be the best summer, the summer
best remembered by the scar, or by the taste
you’ll never now forget of someone’s lips,
and the trips you took—there, there, there,

where snow still slept atop some alpine peak,
or where the moon rose so low you could see
its tranquil seas…and all your life it’ll be like
some familiar body that stayed with you one night,
one summer, one year, when you were young,
and how everywhere you walked, it followed.

“First Year Teacher to His Students” by Gary J. Whitehead, from Measuring Cubits While the Thunder Claps. © David Robert Brooks, 2008.

–rj

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