Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Classic Monterey Moment

I was walking to work today when I encountered a confused-looking gentleman on the corner of Alvarado and Del Monte.

I must have had the look of someone who knows where she's going.

"Can you tell me where the downtown is?" he asked.

"This is it," I said, the ocean my backdrop.

He looked even more confused as I walked away. I guess what you're looking for is sometimes right in front of you.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Why Vote? (A Philosophical Approach)

"Voting is a ceremony. It is an expression of reverence--not for our government or our laws, not for anything man-made, but for the very idea that ordinary people are more important than the juggernauts that seem to rule them. If we do not understand why we should vote in this country, that is because we have fogotten the meaning of ceremony. And the meaning of ceremony is reverence." - Paul Woodruff

Woodruff's statement is one that I would not have understood even a few years ago. Reverence comes with age and understanding. Voting day is a ceremony, and yesterday I found myself wondering why it's not a national holiday. In our busy lives, it's as though we cannot stop and pause, even in making history.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Bit of Inspiration from Cannery Row

I have not written in my blog for over a year. Why should I? What do I have to say?

I've been paralyzed by the idea that I have nothing to say, that my life has changed beyond my capacity for explanation, that there's no point in writing for some unseen audience, the invisible not-knowing, that-which-has-not-may-not-ever-come. I began my self-editing before I ever began. It's easier that way. It gives me an excuse for not writing. I work too much, have too many obligations...

In fact, in myself, I see the flaw that I always caution against: the need for perfection. I'm in the process of writing my great novel. I have some material written. I'm just editing the narrative perspective, narrowing the focus, inventing some never-before-seen genre.

Well, the reality is that I wake up and go to sleep digesting thoughts like anyone else. And, my great American novel might be like most great American novels, a feeling, a glimpse, a hope, never materialized.

And I'm OK with that.

Then today, I had an experience that woke me out of complacency, just a little. I've been teaching an English course at the Monterey Institute focusing on the topic of sustainability. We've read a number of fascinating texts about the environmental crisis that we all know we are in (but manage to ignore on a daily basis). We've visited Stephen Palumbi of the Stanford University Hopkin's Marine Lab and Recology in San Francisco, but today, the experience was somehow different.

We met at Doc Ricketts Lab on Cannery Row in Monterey. Steinbeck made Ricketts famous in his novel Cannery Row, but Ricketts was locally famous in his own right for his contributions to marine biology. I've lived in Monterey for about 10 years, and it is a testament to Ricketts that I heard several tales of his lab before entering. According to legend, I would encounter milk jugs of petrified oceanic specimens and biological oddities upon entering the lab...In reality, I found a cozy living room with a couch you could sink ten feet into and old photos of mafia men and a wholesome good life only the great generation could imagine. In the back room, a piano cozied against a bar in some speak easy dream.

In that living room that belonged to a generation pre-Web, prior to the closing in of a world, a generation, a collective heart and life story, Charles Seaborn spoke to students from China, Japan, Togo, Iraq, and Korea. Frank Wright, who knew Ricketts and experienced Cannery Row at its literary height, told us stories of the bygone days.  We could feel the legacy of Steinbeck, Campbell, and Ricketts in our own voices. Our experiences emerged from the electronic ether and became human conversation. And in that moment, I yearned for something concrete, a pile of wood that I chopped, a house that I built, an engine that I made hum. In the modern world, our every working moment glows from a screen, every thought a transaction. I realized what it is to become human and I wanted to do it again and again.

And so...without any excuses...

I am always dissatisfied with the 500 photos I have on my iPhone with no place to go. The story of the last three photos on my iPhone this week, the story of my life:

Here is Charles Seaborn reading from the book Reverence. He points out that Reverence has three components: Awe (like AWESOME!), respect, and shame. What's that you say? Shame doesn't fit here? Well, many of us have experienced the beauty of nature or of love and felt unworthy guilt at our psychological or physical pollution, that plastic bag we grudgingly take, the exhaust we see blossoming from our tailpipe on an autumn morning. And then, we pull ourselves closer to the person we love, the scenery we hold close and say, "Thank you for loving me anyway." It's a beautiful shame to have.

 Yesterday was Halloween, and for some reason, this year, I was LOVING Halloween. I woke up excited like a school kid anticipating the big day. Halloween took two tangible forms for me this year. First, I taught a lesson on "13 Trivia Questions on Halloween," and second, I celebrated Halloween with the office at Pacific Metrics (I dressed up as Yogi Bear for a "TV" theme). After the work day was complete, I wondered if any children might be popping by my place for a little trick or treating. I bought chocolates and a glowing jack-o-lantern just in case...but there was a light without a party.

I thought about my own childhood, how we went trick-or-treating in our own neighborhoods...and I felt a little let down. Yeah, times are changing. Folks take their kids to Carmel or PG, wherever the feudal lords sit reigning benevolently over their stocks...and pass out chocolate to the appreciative pagan audience. But of course, that's just my cynicism wishing for the good ol' days...which in my case would be the Reagan 80s which I can't imagine were really all that good. So on to a better photo.

Yeah, that's pretty much the best cat that ever lived. Her name is Pele, and in this photo, she is posing as a bunny for Halloween. Pele lives with my X who is away for a couple weeks, so Pele has come to stay with me and my sweetheart for a limited time only. And wow! I had forgotten the blessing that our furry friends bring. Here is number 1: Be here now. Live life. There's no hurry when you're at the stop light rushing to yoga. Imagine that car in front of you is driven by your grandma (particularly in Monterey)...Yeah. Love everybody unconditionally. Love is good stuff, right?

Ok, now let's play.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

EcoMyths and False Salvation #1: Recycling

The LitterBug Campaign was successful in enraging a generation of Toys R' Us Kids.
Top Ten EcoMyths Introduction

As a child, my cousins and I were inundated with commercials about litterbugs. We’d see someone toss a cigarette butt out a car window, and that was it. We’d demand our parents chase them down so that we could accuse them of high treason against mother earth with our shrill cries of LITTERBUG!!! Even today when I see someone toss a McDonald’s bag out the car window, I feel a wave of disdain overtake me (Then again, if someone is trashing their own innards with McDonald’s, of course they are more likely to trash the outside world). I don’t chase them down, but I boil inside and wish I were some sort of enviro- caped crusader (or a cop able to write hefty littering tickets. No speeding tickets on my watch. I’d just fine all the LITTERBUGS out of existence!). Of course, there’s nothing to be done, so I take comfort in the fact that I reuse; I recycle. In California, most of my neighbors do as well.

Here’s the problem with recycling. The Story of Stuff: Plastic Bottles (below) explains that most of what we recycle is downcycled, which is to say, our plastic bottles are not made into plastic bottles; they are made into objects of lesser quality and functionality. Worse, our recyclables are usually sent to China or India on barges, a giant carbon footprint for questionable eco-output. What can’t be downcycled just becomes landfill material in another country; out of sight, out of mind.

When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Benin, I saw how resourceful people could be if necessity demands it. Every plastic bottle was reused, and most beverages came in glass bottles. After use, these bottles went back to the manufacturer, got sanitized, refilled, and put back into circulation. Such a sane model! The problem is, as we increase scale and consumption, such a model becomes less economical than simply throwing stuff away. Coca-cola makes more money off rampant destructive consumerism than conscious manufacturing practices (hence changing the recipe from “expensive” sugar to GMO corn syrup). No one wants to take responsibility for the Pacific gyre, yet we are all responsible.

I recently came across Brook Jarvis’s article about Chris Jordan, a photographer documenting the effects of plastic on the albatross population. "Bearing Witness: Chris Jordan on Art, Grief, and Transformation” in Yes Magazine documents how these poor creatures on Midway Toll Island in the Pacific actually feed their young plastic until it kills them: “…their parents try to feed them one more piece of plastic, one more cigarette lighter or magic marker, and the baby chokes to death. It's a long process of the babies just kind of flapping around, making an awful gagging sound, and then crashing into the ground and expiring.”

The images from this Pacific Island are enough to wake one out of complacence because they make tangible what is often abstract—the effects of our mass consumerism. And perhaps awareness is the single retribution that recycling offers. While corporations and governments refuse to take responsibility or proactive measures, individuals are choosing to change themselves, to do what they can to curb this monster machine. San Francisco, as always, demonstrates a model for the future with its recology program, dedicated to helping San Francisco reach its goal of zero waste through home collection of compost and recyclables. An artist in residence program allows for the creation of sculptures and found art objects. Another powerful example of making art from waste comes out of Brazil where artist Vik Muniz employed and empowered local “pickers” to create art from the garbage they sorted through tirelessly. The documentary Waste Land is a hopeful portrait of the fact that there need be no waste for objects or for people.


Van Jones Ted Talk: The Economic Injustice of Plastic

Waste Land

Yes Magazine  (Bearing Witness: Chris Jordan on Art, Grief, and Transformation)

Recology San Francisco

The Story of Stuff: Plastic Bottles 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Sacred Cows and Elephants in the Room: EcoMyths and False Salvations

The Monterey County Dump where semis full of trash come and go, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Within the green movement, we all have a sacred cow or two. I’ll get it out of the way and fess up that vegetarianism and biodiesel are mine. I’ll maintain to the day I die that if everyone ate a near-vegetarian diet and drove around on biodiesel, we’d have a much happier planet. After all, I did drive around the country on biodiesel to see if it were possible to make it around the U.S. without fossil fuels. While it was possible, it wasn’t easy—we just don’t have the infrastructure (or political stamina) to make biodiesel “convenient” enough for most Americans. But perhaps that’s the problem itself—we have a constant push and pull between ideals and realities…And too often, we don't dream big enough.

Along with our sacred cows, we all have a million and one salves that we apply to make ourselves feel better about the earth’s seemingly inevitable trajectory toward disaster. We carry our own water bottles and coffee mugs, lugging them around like green talismans to ward off evil eye and climate change. We shop at Whole Foods and buy organic shampoo that flows down self-installed gray water systems to our native plant gardens. We turn up our noses at SUVs and WalMart. We insert signatures in our email asking our colleagues not to print our poorly-drafted words.

Let it be said that deep in my heart, I think these are good things…but also deep in my heart (and deep within the media’s never-ending stream of information), I have been taking note of several EcoMyths and False Salvations that I present here not to stir up the already well-established divisions, but to inspire dialogue, compassionate thought, and transcendence…because where we go once we recognize the precociousness of our most sacred cows will determine everything. In part, I write these anecdotes to consolidate the myriad disparate voices I’ve encountered in recent months, to reconcile contradiction or to find comfort in ambiguity.

Following are my top 10 EcoMyths and False Salvations, as presented by my favorite mottos/slogans/bumper stickers.

1: Reduce-Reuse-Recycle
2: We Serve Only Sustainable Catch Seafood!
3: American Farmers Grew my Fuel
4: Please Consider the Environment Before Printing this Email
5: This Home/Car/Bike Powered by the Sun
6: Leed-Certified Building
7: Save the Earth: Go Vegan
8: Support Global Cooling: Drive a Hybrid
9: Gone with the Wind
10: The Singularity and Beyond

I’ll address these items one by one, blog by blog, incorporating my most recent readings and thoughts. I’ll start with the biggest elephant in the room: Recycling.

Read EcoMyths and Elephants in the Room #1 Recycling

Monday, August 1, 2011

When is it time to let go of an old friend?

We spent every waking moment together, shared intimate secrets. She protected me from storms and coyotes. We picked up hitchhikers and old friends. And now, she won’t start for the second time in as many weeks. Maybe it’s her way of rebelling against becoming a commuter car. I understand her frustration. I hate being a commuter. Regardless of Little Red’s rationale, I was beginning to have a conversation with myself: At one point do I say goodbye? When does the car become more trouble than it’s worth? How many parts can you replace before the machine becomes mutant? Is it suffering?

It’s a funny feeling to watch your car be towed away. It suddenly becomes other; it appears as it is, as an object. All sentimentality gets thrown out the window. Or does it? In the past year, I’ve replaced the starter, a strut, the fans, the radiator, and the thermostat. Most recently, I had all the rubber hosing replaced because biodiesel mercilessly had eaten away at the car’s veins. I knew I should have replaced those rubber tubes with synthetic materials like Viton, but sometimes, shoulds don’t become dids.

“No more biodiesel!” my mechanic, Mike, said.

I smiled coyly. I wouldn’t give up biodiesel or my car for the world.

One week later and my car was back at the shop.

“Now, it won’t even turn over. Seems like the alternator,” I said sadly.

“That’s about the only thing we haven’t replaced on this thing,” Mike replied.

I left the shop and went to work, expecting a repair with a big price tag later that day. But an hour later, I got an unexpected call. The alternator was fine…but the wire connecting it to the battery had been chewed through.

“Did you know you have a rat living in your car?” Mike asked.

I thought it had moved out, or if not, that we had at least worked out a friendly don't-ask-don’t-tell policy. But noooo, it had to chew threw my alternator wire. What was next—the brake lines? How was I to maintain my pacifist stance under such duress?

I set out determined to buy mousetraps, but when I got to the big box store containing the traps, I was put off by the sheer number of mouse torture devices. You could catch them with glue traps, snap traps, maze traps, shock seemed like some Middle Ages Million Ways to Die episode. I carefully read the instructions, looking for the most "humane" method, but at the end of the day, I just couldn't do it. Not only could I not let go of a friend, I also could not rid myself of an enemy.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Little Red Vs Big Mouse Part Two: I Smell a Rat

If ever there was a gruesome discovery, it was what I found under my hood that fateful day. My cat’s sudden obsession with my car began to alert me that something was afoot (literally) beneath my radar. Not gifted with supersonic ears sensitive to subterranean animals, I had no idea that I would find a nest under my hood. In my understanding of mice, I had made a few critical errors:

1) Mice live in fields, trees, bushes, and occasionally houses—not cars.
2) Mice are small.
3) Mice are not intelligent.

When I opened my hood, I discovered an intricate nest, crafted of twigs, papers, and the interior engine lining from my car. Most notably, the mouse had chosen to chew up a Charles Bukowski chapbook I had in storage in the shed, Betting on the Muse. “Now the telephone doesn’t ring, the young girls are gone, the party is over,” the shred of paper mourned.

Pele the cat followed me in my investigation, sniffing and then pulling away.

“What cat is afraid of a little mouse?” I teased.

I removed the nest, tossing the work of art into the bushes, hoping the mouse would pack up and move to a more appropriate home. Pele followed, sniffed, and ran into the house.

Next morning, it was still dark when I got in my car to go to work. Everything was quiet. Curiosity guided me to my hood again; this time, I slowly opened it and peeked in.

Prior to that morning, I had never screamed like a girl. It came out of me like a surprised drunken hurl. My hands went to my face and I did the little ballerina dance of a scared child.

This was no ordinary mouse. This was a supersized genetic oddity. A rodent on steroids. A squirrel mouse hybrid. This was the leader of the teenage mutant ninja turtles. Not Turtle Power—Rat Power!

Believing in the radical notion of non-harm, I decided to find a peaceful solution. Little did I know that my rat friend would declare war.

Little Red Vs. Big Mouse Part One: Pele's Message


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