Friday, November 26, 2010

Black Friday

Santa Claus' sleigh these days takes the form of this huge ship, commissioned by Wal-Mart and built in Denmark specifically and only to haul goodies from China to the U.S. It takes just 13 people to run it, even though it's longer than a U.S. aircraft carrier. This ship is so big that it had to be built in five separate sections that were welded together. The command bridge alone is higher than a 10-story building. The ship has its own cargo crane rigs--11 of them--that operating simultaneously can unload the entire ship in under two hours. So this is where Christmas comes from, where Black Friday lives. Typically, cargo ships from China that bring consumer goods to California ports, return with cardboard and material for recycling--in other words, garbage. But these ships reputedly return completely empty. [Thanks to Bill T. for sending me these photos etc. awhile back.]

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Gratitude 2010

In a personal way and in conventional terms, I have much to be grateful for this year. The family members I've just visited in PA are healthy and reasonably secure, as are Margaret and I.

In the larger sense, the difference between last Thanksgiving and this is that I no longer believe that anything will or perhaps even can prevent major calamities in the near future--within a half century. Partly this is because I now accept that effects already in the works from global heating will be very serious, and society is clearly not prepared for them. Nor does our country in particular seem likely to be up to the challenge of preventing worse consequences, or dealing effectively with the consequences to come relatively soon. So to me the future looks different than it did just a year ago.

I've been dipping into a 1992 collection of pieces by John Leonard, surely the most brilliant, incisive and comprehensive American cultural critic of the past half century, titled The Last Innocent White Man in America (which refers not to himself but to Kurt Vonnegut.) Leonard looked at political and societal events from the perspectives--the wisdom--gleaned from literature. Just sampling some of the pieces from the 80s and early 90s made me realize that things haven't changed much, not since Reagan in the 1980s, and in larger currents, not since industrialism or capitalism or even the rise of what we call civilization, which was always based on war,exploitation and racism, if not outright slavery. In particular, American racism, xenophobia, and the war of the super rich on everyone else, with the side effects of extremism justified by religion and the pursuit of ignorance that all seem to be reaching new heights, were all visible in this familiar form and growing in the 1980s.

We needed to improve faster, and we haven't. In particular, our last chance to deal with global heating without catastrophic consequences that at least equal World War II and could well be much worse and more pervasive, was probably the late 1970s or early 1980s. So though the jury is out on whether the human species has flunked evolution, it seems very likely that what we call human civilization has.

I suppose in some selfish sense I am grateful that I won't live long enough to see the worst of what will happen, although no one knows what one's personal fate may be. But while I'm here I also hope to convey to the next generations what I believe they need to know, and need to be, to meet the challenges of that future.

Part of what I hope to convey is gratitude. Some of that is in the vein of the essay by Joanna Macy that I've quoted here every Thanksgiving for the past several years. But some is different, or more specific.

The best gratitude is absolute, but some of it is based on comparison. The worst kind of gratitude is being grateful for having what others don't have, which leads to all kinds of mischief. But imagining what one might not have can be a useful and enlightening comparison. The key word here is "imagining." Using imagination is the key.

But often what is imagined is based in experience, is an extrapolation. In winters when I was growing up, our water pipes would occasionally freeze, and we would be without running water for days. Where I live now, storms or other accidents have blacked out electrical power, sometimes for a week or more. There have been circumstances in my life when I've had little food or money. When I've been thirsty and without water. When I had no place to sleep. All of these are educational experiences. We assume so much. But our most basic resources are very fragile.

So at my age, I am grateful every day when after a certain amount of groaning, my muscles work pretty smoothly and without pain. But also just about every day I am consciously grateful for hot running water. Those basics of food, clothing, shelter, energy and infrastructure and the relative ease with which we obtain them are increasingly precarious. Learning this, and then learning what this prospect and those situations may mean in terms of personal character--of qualities of soul-- as well as action in the world, are going to be more and more necessary in the future. A future that can begin being the present at any moment.

So also, gratitude for the moment. For the laughter and affection of Oliva (age 5) and Persephone (age 3.) For all my family, and all my relations. For the hummingbirds that hang out near our feeders, now that all the flowers have gone. For Glenn Gould on YouTube. For Inka Dinka Do. For the good heartedness behind the crazy cultural melange called Thanksgiving in America.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

From This Modern World, where there's information on Tom Tomorrow's gift collection for adults and a book for children. Tell him Captain Future sent you. (Though I'm not suggesting you ignore the new Doonesbury book. Just sayin.)

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future."
John F. Kennedy

To Grandmother's House We Scan

Having just flown back and forth across the U.S., I'm marvelling at the ongoing flyers revolt, which is attracting a lot of attention as a record number of people take to the airways for Thanksgiving weekend.

Up until now it's seemed that people were so intimidated by the spectre of terrorism that they were willing to undergo the absurd humiliations that pass for security checks at airports. On this trip I noticed how normal it has become to be sorting through buckets of your possessions while holding up your pants and walking in your socks, then finding somewhere to reassemble it all, get your belt back on and your shoes back on your feet. In both directions on my trip, it went very smoothly.

There was less hoohaw about the disposition of your mouthwash and nail clippers than last time--partly because we're all used to the rules, whether they make sense or not. We know now that we're expected to pay a premium for bottled water past the check point, because we're not allowed to bring any in. On this trip, both flyers and security people dealt with everything pretty calmly and efficiently.

But it seems that the new full body scanners being installed in airports everywhere are a bridge too far for the flying public. (They weren't operational in Arcata or Pittsburgh, the two airports where I went through security.) There are fears about radiation, not mollified at all by official pronouncements of their safety (which is what government authorities always say. Once upon a time, they said nuclear fallout is good for you.) There seems to be a special aversion to how much the scanners are reputed to show.

The only alternative that the Transportation Safety Administration offers is the full body pat down, which is just as repulsive to the people who are in revolt on the scanners. The buzz has been intense--protests have succeeded in getting pat downs forbidden for children, but there's controversy about gender and sex--security men aren't supposed to be patting down women, but what if they're gay? Once the match is lit in the age of texting and Twitter, these matters become a raging fire.

The first protests I saw covered were from pilots, who were angry about the rigid, incompetent and idiotic application of meaningless rules--which is hardly new to the situation (witness the notorious problems with the No Fly lists.) Later they expressed concerned at being repeatedly scanned and exposed to cumulative levels of radiation.

Then protests from both frequent and infrequent flyers quickly became organized, and got the attention of the travel industry, which quickly met with government officials. Some changes were made, some comforting noises issued from Homeland Security and the White House, but the scanners are going forward, and the Thanksgiving flyers are about to take to the air like turkeys. Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Heroes of the Future

Mark Twain to the 19th and early 20th centuries, Kurt Vonnegut to the 20th and early 21st--so many connections and similarities, and now suddenly they're both back in the news: Twain for an unaccountably popular and long-delayed memoir, and Vonnegut for the opening of a museum dedicated to him and his work. Despite the ironies embedded in these stories, these are still two causes for celebration, for two heroes of the future.