Powerless

Last week’s snow storm was the first snow storm I did not feel that kid-on-Christmas feeling.  For those of you not in the Northwest, was happened was that we got our annual three days of snow.  This year it was called Snopocalypse 2012.  Last winter we had Snomagedon.  As in, we got enough snow that we didn’t get grass stains when we went sledding.  (That used to happen to me all the time when I was a kid.  I was a die-hard sledder in those days.  Anything whitish was enough of an excuse.)  But media drama aside, this year was kind of a doozy.  Because of how many trees broke in the ice, the power was out over most of rural King County.  We were without power for three days.  That meant no water (it’s an electric pump), no cookstove, no internet.  We have a wood stove, so we could keep part of the house cozy, but we were stuck at home as the driveway was iced in and too many trees were falling down to make going on a walk a very good idea.  So there we were, my parents, my brother, me, three dogs, and a cat, all in the two warm rooms of the house.  With no showers and no internet.

Now, my family is pretty outdoorsy.  We all like camping and we all like adventures.  And even without electricity, the house was cozy and plush.  We cooked some gourmet meals on the wood stove (bacon, french toast, filleted leg of lamb with apple mint jelly), and had plenty of candles for light on the still-long evenings.  I have lived off the grid before, and really like having minimal electronics.  I love how quiet the world is without all the humming, buzzing, and floor-shaking electric bass electricity allows.  But this was different.  This was four people who are mildly tired of each other, stuck together without our usual distractions.  This was mega-crankiness.  This was familial suffication.  “If this went on for a month, people would die!” My mom proclaimed on the second day.  “They would go crazy and die.  I’m not talking about us.    We would adapt.  I’m not so sure about other people.” Personally, I am not so sure about her either.

It was a bit of a wake-up call all around about how emotionally dependent we are on the internet.  There was this restlessness, this sense that the world was passing us by.  I was desperate to check my email, so sure that there were urgent things waiting for me that would change everything about all the things that felt stuck in my life.  Without the internet, it felt there was no motion.  Interestingly enough, when I finally did check, none of the emails I was hoping for had come.  The restlessness was all my own.

It did make me think about my relationship with energy as well.  I became more comfortable in dusky light, more comfortable using other senses instead of switching on big lights automatically.  I played more banjo than I had in a long time, and wrote a letter.  I realized I would love to live a life with less electricity, but a life that is set up with workable low-energy systems.  I like running water in my sink.  I like hot showers.  I like at least some internet.  I’d be happy with fewer electric lights and no toaster or TV and I actually prefer a nice outhouse to a flush toilet, but I do like to be able to wash my hands.

 

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My Friends Are Right

This is a book report on why I should listen to my friends.  They have been telling me and telling me I should read the Hunger Games books, and kept telling them, yeah, but I have this big stack of impressive books written by people I know from Sewanee, not to mention this D.H. Lawrence novel and this long line of library research on subjects like the Asian Exclusion Act  and What Corpses Do in Water and Popular Hair Styling Methods of 1927, so I probably just won’t get around to it. Aren’t-there-just-always-too-many-good-books-and-too-little-time?  Yes, it’s true, there are, but that was no excuse for not listening to my friends.

Finally, one dark night when I couldn’t deal with this artsy novel about screwed-up relationships I was attempting, I picked up my brother’s copy of The Hunger Games.  (Side note — he had not actually read it either, because he doesn’t often sit down to read whole books.  Aidan, I know you’re reading this: get the fricking thing on CD already.  You’ll like it.)  I started reading.  And I was gone.

I realize I am probably preaching to the choir, as I may be the only person besides my brother who has not read these hotcakes.  I may also be preaching to the disenchanted ones who didn’t like these books.  Oh well.  I have some things to say.

First, this lady knows how to write a plot.  But beyond that, this is one of the most interesting and resonant explorations of  speaking truth to power I have read in a long time.  And of being human in an inhuman imperial culture.  And of wealth disparity, war, and loving more than one person.  This is a heck of a lot more relevant to my world than, say, abstinence-promoting vampires.  Not to mention it’s written by someone whose sentences I can read without cringing.  It made me squirm even as I could not put it down, as I watched myself be entertained by the violence-as-entertainment — the Hunger Games — that act as both a repressive force and as the nation’s main pastime in the story.  It felt very close to home.

Last, all of you friends — and there are a lot of you — who write post-apocalyptic fiction, use this as your bestseller-inspiration and please write us some more.  And meanwhile, I will take your advice and get around to those Dragon Tattoo books.

Dentistry, well, Bites

Being a dentist has got to be one of the most demoralizing jobs in the world, right up there with standing on a street corner in a sandwich board.  First of all, you hurt people all day, and people are scared of you.  Second of all, mouths are kind of gross — there’s a reason people kiss with their eyes shut.  Third, half your tools are poisons — fluoride, and industrial waste product; mercury, a heavy metal; estrogen-mimicking composites — and the other half are strange little torture tools.  (Last week, when I was at the dentist, I had to lie there while my dentist sharpened his tools.  Scrape, scrape, scrape….) I could go on. 

But the biggest reason dentistry must be demoralizing is this: every day you tell your patients to do just a few small things: brush, floss, eat fewer butter toffees and cocoa puffs.  It is such a small thing to ask — nothing time consuming or expensive or revolutionary. Just a few tiny hygienic rituals.  BUT PEOPLE STILL CAN’T DO IT. Sure, most of us brush and floss most of the time, but rarely can we live up to that dental utopia our dentists dream of, where plaque does not form, gums never bleed, and no one even thinks about chocolate-covered raisins.  So each day, the poor dentists are there in the trenches, begging us to do these tiny, impossible things, and growing wearier and wearier behind their perfect smiles.  But it gets worse — dental patients are the responsible ones.  Out there, on the sidewalks and highways of our nation, are all the people who ignore their dental reminder postcards, or who never receive dental postcards at all.  There are people out there who never have anyone inspect the food particles stuck between their teeth: people without dentists.  Do they trouble dentists’ sleep? Do dentists dream of standing, tall as the stature of liberty, blazing toothbrush raised, and saying to the unflossed masses, “Brush, floss….”  Or have they given up hope, knowing no matter how many times they say those magic words, tooth decay will continue.

If people can’t even floss regularly, how will we ever do any of the difficult things that need to be done to make a better society?  It’s a daunting thing to consider, there with only your latex-free gloves between you and some stranger’s badly-brushed enamel.

I wonder, though, what if the request was bigger? What if it really seemed to matter? Then would people do it?

Corporations are People Too

You know what they say: Corporations are people, too.  (If you don’t know, Mitt Romney can tell you.)

I know this is a hard thing for some of us to adjust to.  It was hard for some people to accept that Irish people and black people and gay people were people, so it is understandable that it might take us a while with corporation people.  Perhaps someone ought to make a song for preschoolers about it.

But seriously, people, think about it.  There are some far-reaching ramifications of this.  It touches many of the key issues of our times.  For instance:

Transportation:  As long as you have your corporation in the car, you should be allowed in the carpool lane.  If you get pulled over, just say politely, “Officer, notice my corporation, right there in that dossier on the passenger seat.”  Be careful, however, never to leave the dossier in the trunk: that’s no place for a person.

Abortion: Ever since the 1970’s, the precedent has been for the government keep its laws off our corporations.  On the other hand, once a corporation has been conceived, is it moral and legal to terminate it?  Isn’t that a kind of murder?

Marriage Equality: Any two grown-up people who love each other should be allowed to marry, whether they are a man and a woman, two men, two women, a man and a corporation, a woman and a corporation, or two corporations.  Right now, our laws deny this right to everyone except a man and a woman, and two corporations.  This is a gross injustice.  If a man loves his corporation, and his corporation loves him, why can’t they marry?  They practically live together anyways.

Accessibility: We have made great strides in the last few decades to make our society more accessible for people with a wide range of physical abilities.  Although we still have a long way to go, we are moving towards a society where every person can participate with the body they have.  But what about our corporate people, who have no bodies at all?

Education: Despite our rhetoric of commitment to public education, our schools remain a place where corporations can only participate in certain ways.  They can sell their soda pop, for instance, but can they really be educated?  If you look around at our country today, you can see that clearly they are not receiving the benefits of a public education.  It is doubtful they are even making it through kindergarten.  I mean, how many corporations that you know of have learned to share?  How many pledge allegiance to the flag?  Although they are competitive in the global workforce, few have achieved the level of citizenship skills, ethics, and ecological literacy that we might hope they would in the 21st century.  Clearly, something is wrong if we are letting these people out into the world with this level of education.

This is only the tip of the iceberg.  However, as you can see, we have a long way to go as a society before we can join Mr. Romney in wholeheartedly saying, “yes, corporations are people, my friends.”

 

The Immunity of Goodness

My sister Grace once owed a coffee shop two cents, and went back to pay up.  And I owe my friend Tara lunch and have for five years or so, since she picked up the tab and said I could get the next one, which hasn’t happened yet.  I’m sure she doesn’t ever think about it, but it’s there in my internal ledger.  God help the world if I was Santa Claus.  But this is how I was brought up.  It’s freakishly important to me that people think I am a responsible person.

This does not mean I always follow the rules (not by a long shot), but it does mean that I don’t like getting in trouble for breaking them.  In fact, it generally strikes me as a deep injustice when I do get chastised for being irresponsible.  I think my decisions through!  I am not intending anybody harm! Sure there is a law, but it’s not for me, because I am responsible!

I don’t feel this kind of bad about getting parking tickets, or getting pulled over, or when I mess something up with disastrous consequences.  But when someone implies that I might not be responsible, oh geez.

For instance, last week, I was walking Squinchy in Seward Park.  It was mid-day on a rainy weekday, and we were up on the windy little woods trails that hardly anybody was on, so I didn’t have him on the leash.  He was sniffing things.  I was angsting.  Rainy woods are good for both of those things, and we were really getting into it.  We had hardly seen anyone.

Then up came a woman.  Squinchy sniffed her.  And she said to me, “I just have to tell you, there are a lot of good dog parks in Seattle, but this is not one of them.  I don’t really like dogs, and my four year old is terrified of them, and sometimes I take him up here, so I would appreciate it if you would obey the leash law.”

“Ok, sure,” I mumbled, grabbing Squinch’s collar.  Then she was gone, and since there was nobody else up there, I let Squinchy go again.  But boy, was I upset! I mean, I had weighed the decision to break that law carefully.  And as for the dog parks, sure Squinchy could run around in one, but I would have to stand in the open in the rain, which while it allows for a certain kind of angst, is not nearly as cathartic as walking in the woods.  And leash laws are meant to keep mean or wild dogs from hurting people.  Squinchy didn’t cause any harm.  Hell, back in Missoula, dogs were always off leash and it was up to you to keep them from jumping up on you if you didn’t like mud on your clothes.

Sure, that lady sounded reasonable, but that only made it worse.  If she had just said, “Put a leash on your damn dog!” it would have been so much better.  Then we would have been on equal footing: I would have had a dog off leash, and she would have been yelling at a stranger.  But she was so non-violent-communication nicey-nice, like she was some really awesome person and I was a delinquent she could condescend to inform.

Yeah, it really hit a nerve.  Maybe if I had not been feeling already upset it would have rolled off like the rain on my raincoat.  I’m pretty sure at this point the good dog-fearing woman was mostly standing in for other people I was already upset at, which is probably obvious.   And I know that my belief in my own upstandingness blinds me at times to my own disreputable actions.  I mean, it can’t be that bad if I did it: I’m a responsible person!

As Kayla says in Good Like the Sea, “Ah, the folly of believing in the immunity of one’s own goodness.”