Sunday, November 30, 2014

Education of a Wandering Man

“I have told many, yet when I go down that last trail, I know there will be a thousand stories hammering at my skull, demanding to be told.”

― Louis L'Amour, Education of a Wandering Man

Wanderers - a short film by Erik Wernquist from Erik Wernquist on Vimeo.

Dear Dad,

This would have been something you'd have enjoyed. Even near the end, you'd have felt it in your bones, like the memory of flying, I'm sure. You gave me enough glimpses of that man over the years, though not enough of them, and never the long look at him that I hoped to have. Sometimes I wonder if he was more my creation than your reality, but I think he just got obfuscated by the passage of time and your life's limitations. Still, I think he was still there, and I know he—I know you—would have found it captivating and fantastic.

Perhaps it is that I am not so different than you in some ways, Dad. Given the emotional impetus, I will take the raw stuff of my feelings and apply it to my ponderings or interests in a way that, occasionally, turns into writing, or at least fuels my imagination and wonder for awhile. And I need that, crave it like a thrill seeker craves the next thrill,—because it simply feels more like real life than what is normally, actually, life of the all-too-human sort on this particular spot on this particular little planet.

So then, I dreamed of you the other morning. Well, not of you, per se, but about you. I was going through some of your personal stuff—something from your desk, if I recall—and I found some hybrid item like you only find in dreams, something like a leather day planner (I forget what they call those), only bigger and with tabs of some sort, and the AOPA logo was worked into it like it was made for pilots. And it was this last thing that, for whatever reason, got to me. I was, in the dream, so acutely aware that you were gone, as if I'd not understood until that very moment, that the air was sucked from my lungs, and I only inhaled again so that I might let out the most pitiful sobbing…. I very nearly screamed with the pain of my heart being pulled out of my chest. I woke to my partner soothing me even as she tried to make sense of what was happening. It took a few minutes to recover my composure enough to stop crying and catch my breath again.

It's only the second time this has happened to me. The first time was when I dreamed that you and Mom were hugging me together, and the pain of the loss was exponentially exacerbated by the relief I felt to be held again by you both.

You are gone, the both of you. But I've had more time to make peace with Mom's death than I have had to make peace with yours. And you were always more problematic and iconic to me, making my love for you something of a mongrel beast in my own breast. I say that with no malice or sardonic edge. My guess is that you'd understand me, now, stripped of all the things that kept you trapped in the world you made for yourself.

Really, I only wish I might show you this, and you could share your response with me, and there would be again—as occasionally there was—that sense of recognition between us wherein the best form of love between us flourished perennially, however often it was utterly obscured by recurring difficulties neither of us knew how to deal with.

It is a cruel fact of life that you can't fix relationships with the dead. It is a true object lesson regarding the immutability of history. There are no do-overs, no going back. The dead are like holograms encased in the amber of time, slowly fading and blurring with the memories that recall them, while the living continue on with the perverse sense that their own feelings somehow connect backward through time to a past that is eternally vital and conscious. What is most true is that this sense can all but be equal to the profound despair and enormity of the loss. It may not amount to any metaphysical belief in an afterlife or eternal soul, but it is as pervasive as the unconscious mind, and as real as history itself.

I can't help but think what it may be like for our descendants, who, if humanity survives its stupidities, will one day leave this little planet. How shall it seem to them, to leave behind the final resting place of so many countless humans, the very cradle of humanity, where, as Carl Sagan said,
On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
Will there be a need for something like psychologists to help people come to terms with a profound sense of loss occasioned by the realization that never again will they set foot upon the good earth? I really do wonder. I wonder what you would have thought of the idea, Dad, and I wish you were there for me to call and ask. We didn't get enough times like that, and now we never will.

I love and miss you.

Your Son,


Saturday, November 22, 2014

I think that a good thing to do with this blog would be to use it to share playlists. I listen to a lot of music, and I tend to make really long playlists. I'm guessing that most people do not need a day's worth of music in one shot, so I'll go for relatively shorter lists. Maybe later I'll focus in separate entries on some of my favorite works/artists in a given playlist.

Sounds good, what what?

Friday, March 7, 2014

A Comment I Wrote

…The way I see it, this is my little flicker of existence in the vastness of all time and space. I did not live before, and I won't live again (save in certain very odd theoretical outcomes, but even then it wouldn't really be "me" per se). And I am not a rock or a tree or an amoeba. I'm not an elephant or a wolf or a skink. Out of all the things I might have been, it turns out that I am this animated collection of atoms called a human, the product of a simply mind-boggling collection of circumstances, happenstance, random (or at least stochastic) events, accident,—and the seeming nature of the universe. Here I am on this ball of minerals and other elements, with its thin layer of atmosphere, tectonic plates sliding about causing earthquakes and volcanoes as, deep in its center, some 4000 miles below my feet, its core vibrates and burns at pressures so great that the metal is forced to become a solid. And the whole thing is hurtling around a giant nuclear reactor some 93 million miles away. If you started walking and never once rested, it would take you some 4000 years to walk to the sun. And then, all of this, our little solar system, is meanwhile moving about the center of a galaxy with billions upon billions of stars—which of course I learned many years ago, watching Cosmos—and the galaxy is, itself, orbiting a common center with many other galaxies. I mean… Can you imagine it? And here we have relationships with other people just as unique, and fights, and all kinds of feelings, and we move through a world of symbols, our minds filled with thoughts, more or less conscious of our actually being here. There are wars, and tragedies, and sadness, and there are joyful times, triumphs, and great happiness. There is touching someone and feeling her pulse under your fingertips. There is holding someone's hand and feeling his hand squeeze back. There are conversations, dreams, longings, and we are moved to empathy, to action, to further thoughts, to new ideas. Every day, this wonder is there. Sometimes we get ill, or tired, or broken by things, and it all seems so closed up and numb. People die. Sometimes terribly, cruelly, pointlessly. People starve in a universe full of energy (by which no metaphysics is meant). But if you, yourself, have that moment to see the mind-blowing sweep of it all, and take in just what it is you have, the totally impersonal opportunity that is just there to be had, if by chance you happen upon it…. How can one not be taken in by it? To me, it's what motivates me to try and keep trying to be a better person. I want to see others feel better when they are down. I want to feed people when they are hungry. I want to make things better generally. I want to make it more likely that anyone might have that moment. We are poised in the flash of eternity, and it is all we have. And while it is true that everyday life will claim our hours more likely than not, and we will be caught up by all the little details of our personal lives, pitched this way and that by circumstance, and be rendered oblivious by the density of all that holds us captive,—FUCK, you know? FUCKING HELL. It's all still there, and it's everything all at once. And beyond myself I can't but love that I'm here to see it. I mean, I look around at myself and wonder if I'm even supposed to be so lucky. You know what I mean? What a show! And it's reality! That's what I think. …Well, that and a lot of other things….

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Going About It A New Way

It has been awhile since I posted. This is not because I haven't started posts or thought about things I'd like to post, it is because I have been going it the wrong way. As it turns out, when it comes to writing in a blog I am more a Jackson Pollock than a Piet Mondrian. That is, I am apparently less structured, less defined, and what I write about appears perhaps more scattershot and random, but there is method there, and pattern, and meaning.

When I try to write very carefully, clearly defined pieces, I wind up doing one of two things. I either oversimplify, thus reducing the effectiveness and potency of the piece, or I write very long pieces that risk losing any but the long-endurance reader. This is, at least in part, because I grew up reading novels rather than short stories. It is also perhaps because I love language, nuance, explication, and unpacking meaning. The result is that I have been floundering with this blog, uncertain about where to begin or end anything, lost in editing, over-concerned with managing details. We are our own worst critics, as everyone knows, but I am also my own worst publishing house, regularly refusing to commit things to print because, well, this piece is far too long or that piece is short not only in length but also in real content.

Also, I have ADD. Not ADHD, mind you, but ADD. Writing is, for me, a matter of energetic bursts driven by intense focus and interest. So long as I may sustain the fascination with saying whatever it is I'm trying to say, I can sustain the writing. But if I get too bogged down in something I'm having a hard time expressing, then anything can divert me from my course and swallow whatever energy I had remaining. Hours later, staring at what I was previously writing, I see it as if it's a faded, tattered fragment from some previous season. It's very hard to pick it up again. Too, I lack self-confidence. My internal critic is all too happy to savage my efforts. While I am able to recognize that, yes, I am quite capable of writing good prose, it is also true that I am not able to ignore that internal voice saying, "Why do you bother? Nobody is interested in this crap you share."

I used to be a lot more prolific, more daring, more carefree. Stories, screeds, meditations, rants, poetry, vignettes; all flowed from my fingers and into the keyboard as if I was born to write. People were often moved to comment to my writing, telling me that I was very good and, surprised that I wasn't published, where I should be published. The truth is, though, that I was a different person back then. Not a better person, either. Since those years, I have matured considerably, and grown as a person in ways that make me, more often than not, glad I lived to see such change in myself. But I write a lot less, now. The drive is still there, but it is not obsessively insistent. I work, now. I have to work, now. Whatever I might have been as a writer back in the day,—well, it's just gone and done. And that's okay, really. That wasn't to be my life. This life I have now is.

In this life as I live it, there is a real urge to write about what matters to me. I took a fair number of English and journalism classes over the years, and I wrote editorials and music reviews, and I even earned a scholarship for my efforts. All of that experience informed who I am, now. I read a lot of articles within a range of topics that matter to me, but they all distill into a concern with and for humanity. I am drawn toward writing as a form of activism on these topics. I just don't know yet how to really talk about them in a way that adds to the important discussion. If there's one thing I can't stand, it's writing a piece that amounts to chirping "Me, too!" at people. It is not useful to write an opinion piece that basically notes that the findings of the findings are findings according to my findings. You feel me?

My mother taught me that being personable and personal creates an atmosphere wherein people will listen to what you're saying. Anyone can be a jerk spouting opinions. It's an easy road to failure. Nobody actually listens to opinionated jerks. At best, they react in kind. To actually succeed, one needs to share herself openly, be kind, and express her thoughts clearly, cogently, and honestly. Like I'm doing here, I guess you'd say. I mean, that's what I'm trying to do here, anyway.

That is how I need to approach things, and that is how I intend to proceed with this blog. No pontificating. No bloviating or grandstanding. I need to be conversational in tone, and feel free to let the river meander on its course from wellspring to sea, because that is how I will manage to succeed in getting my point across. In a way, that is exactly what I need to do in order to suss out the point I'm really after making.

Thanks for your patience as I learn to be the writer I need to be.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

A Fire In The Theater Of The Absurd

The movie theater is crowded. Almost every seat seems to be taken, and yet there also seems to be no end to the people coming in, still looking for seats. People are in the aisles when the lights go down and the little pack of adverts begins to run on the screen. Some people are still talking, and there are also people shushing the talkers who are, themselves, just as noisy. Someone jostles your seat, and someone makes you scrunch your legs up so that they can pass you, their ass in your face. But despite all this, you are prepared to watch a movie, and you hold onto the hope that eventually people will settle down and the movie will start.

The doors to the theater close. And for some reason this seems really ominous to you. Somehow, claustrophobia-inducing. But even then, you chalk it up to the crowd being so heavily packed in. You still think that, when the movie starts, you'll be transported by movie magic to that happy place where you can happily suspend your disbelief. You manage to work up a moment of excitement about it when, quite suddenly, a commotion breaks out. It's in harsh whispers, down to your left, near the stairs that lead to the exit at the side of the screen. There is more shushing, but you catch some of the words, and your heart begins to race. "There's smoke! I smell it!" "Someone's got a cigarette—" "No! It smells like burning wood and plastic!" "I don't smell it… No, wait. I smell it now. Holy shit!"

There is a general murmur in the audience that spreads like rain beginning to fall. You were not the only one to hear the exchange, and now people are beginning to raise their voices. "What smoke? What? Where?" "I think I smell it, too!" "Oh my God… No no no no…" "Is there a fire?" Is there a fire? You smell the smoke, now. And people are beginning to panic in that low key way that sounds like revving up. Then the person to your right, in the row above you, says, "There's no smoke! You people are imagining things!" And the person directly behind you says, "They're crazy. There's no smoke. Shut up down there and sit down! We want to watch the movie!" They seem calm and annoyed by the fuss going on. But you aren't sure now. The people down in front are slowly doing this weird dance of trying to move around each other toward the stairs on the other side. "Oh my God will you people sit the fuck down!" It's the person above you to your right again. You turn your head and crane your neck to look at the guy, and he looks at you in this exasperated way. "Do you smell smoke?" "I…" you begin, but he cuts you off. "You don't. There is no smoke." And you turn around to look at the screen. You decide that you're just going to ignore all this. The movie will start. The volume will be loud. It's an action-drama-comedy with lots of explosions and big laughs and meaningful moments. It's called, The Life We Live. You decide that you are not going to be distracted by the unfolding ruckus.

Then you notice it. You notice the strange haze in the air. It looks like a light fog, but there are also puffs of heavier stuff moving through it. Your mouth feels dry. From behind you the guy says, "Someone's smoking in here. What an asshole." Someone shushes him and he bumps the back of your chair as he turns to tell the person to be quiet. But your eyes are locked on the thickening haze before the screen. Someone down near the front begins to chant, "There'safirethere'safirethere'safire," really quietly, but audibly. And then someone yells it. "Fire!" A group of people begin to move en masse from the left side of the theater down in front, toward the opposite side of the section. Someone else begins to yell for everyone to stay calm. The person to your left says, "It's probably a cigarette under someone's seat." This strikes you as kind of crazy, because what cigarette makes that much smoke? Someone else—the person in front of you, one row down, says, "There's no way that's a cigarette. There's a fire. We have to get out of here."

But there is no way out. The doors are closed. They won't budge. No one can open them. And now some people are panicking. As people begin to push back into the depths of the theater the first flames become visible, lighting up the bottom of the screen as the first scene of the movie begins. The big name actor is walking across an open airfield carrying a bazooka. His voice echoes in the enclosed space above the sounds of people descending into desperation. "The game is on, and I'm going to win it. You can't stop the inevitable!" And for an odd moment you find yourself transfixed by the hero of the film as he strides meaningfully toward some destination of glory. Then a wave of people crashes over you. People trample over the seats and the people in them, trying to get to the seats higher up, away from the flames. But the people up there are now trying to get down because the smoke has begun to gather thickly up there. And where will you all go, now?

"All this over nothing," the guy behind you says. "The fire's not real. This is stupid. The theater people are trying to scare us into leaving, and then they'll just keep our money!" And his friend laughs like that's the funniest thing he ever heard. "Maybe we should go," he says to his friend. "Screw all these people. Idiots." And even as they continue to talk about how gullible people are and how this is all an elaborate plan to get the moviegoers' money there are flames lapping up the screen, which is beginning to blacken and curl as the hero fires the bazooka into an outhouse where some bad guy has hidden from him. And the thing flies up into the air like a rocket as the bad guy screams, "Aiiiiyeeeeee!" And you can actually hear people in the theater laughing. And now the people in the front who can't get out are fighting over something. "Give me your drink! Give me your drink! We have to try to put the fire out!" "No! I bought this drink! It's mine!" And then someone catches on fire.

And even if you were to focus really hard on watching the movie, you don't think you could manage it, because this situation is really bad. It's out of control. And you wish you never came to this theater. You wish really hard that you hadn't, with your fingers in your ear, saying, "Na na na na na na na na! I can't hear you!" And you close your eyes, and you ignore the guy behind you who's yelling something angrily… something about conspiracies and ignorance and… oh, now he has a gun. You know he does, because he's shooting at people and the air compression is palpable. And several people are on fire now. And the screen is falling as the flames lick upward to the ceiling. And you wonder why no one had tried to stop the fire when it was just a little thing. Why didn't anyone do anything? Why didn't you?

Originally posted in 2011.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Climate Change Analogies: The Firefighter

Consider the following scenario.

A firefighter is invited to give a talk about fires. She is an expert in the field, with some fifteen years experience. She has been dealing with fires actively, and teaches others how to deal with them. She is widely considered to be very knowledgeable, and is very well respected by other firefighters.

At her talk, she discusses how fires get started. She details the kinds of fires that firefighters have to deal with. Wildfires, house fires, natural fires, and fires caused by arson. She discusses the ins and outs of fire prevention, and discusses the methodologies used by firefighters in combating blazes of all kinds.

When she is done with the main portion of her talk, there is a Q&A, and audience members are allowed to come up to a microphone and ask her questions. A man approaches the microphone and clears his throat. "How do you answer the fact that all fires are natural?"

She blinks, not understanding. "Excuse me… I don't think I follow your meaning," she says. "Fire is a natural thing, of course, but how fires start can be natural or it can be that someone caused it."

The man shakes his head. "No. That's just not true. All fires are natural. They just happen. There's no proof that anyone can cause a fire. People like you are trying to fool everyone, because you are trying to keep your job. But the truth is that fires start and fires go out, and nobody can explain it."

Nonplussed, she tries to puzzle out what this man is thinking. "Sir," she says, "People can and do cause fires. Surely, either you or someone you know, or maybe you've seen it in a movie,—you've seen someone light a fire in a fireplace, haven't you?"

"That's not the same thing," the man says. "You're trying to convince me that if someone lights a fire in a fireplace, that it's going to burn the house down. That's just a lie!"

Now, let's take a moment here. You are probably thinking that this is ridiculous. You know, like I know, that of course fires can be set. Some are safe, and some are not. Some are natural, and some are caused by a person or people. Some are caused inadvertently by people, like when a transformer blows out and sets a tree on fire.

Yet when it comes to climate change, some people insist that there's no possible way that humans could play any role in it. Some even insist that it's not happening at all.

"Sir," she says, "I am not claiming that any fire will go out of control. But some fires do go out of control, or start where they shouldn't have started."

Clearly frustrated, the man says, "Well, I don't believe you! I don't believe in your fire stories! When a building burns down, there's no proof that fire actually did it! It was poor building materials and lousy construction! Fire just happened to be there, but there's no connection! You just want to charge us more money for water to put out fires that don't have anything to do with why a building burns up! I was really skeptical when I came here, because I read an article by [redacted], and he says that fires are just natural variability and don't really burn anything. And then he links to some papers that show how firefighters like you are scamming the public into paying higher water bills!"

Incredulous, she says, "Did you say [redacted] wrote this article you read? Don't you know that he's a convicted arsonist?"

"He's doing lectures, now," the man says, a look of triumph in his eyes, "So you can't shut him up anymore about your hoax!"

It's painfully silly, isn't it? I know. Yet that is pretty much what climate scientists are dealing with. Climate change deniers literally flout the findings of climate science, citing cranks, fossil fuel industry spokespeople, crackpots, and anyone who will support their denial. But the fact is that it really is on the same level as our fictional character here, trying to discredit the firefighter with his specious, bizarre, and unhinged accusations. Worse, we have government officials who are abusing their positions of authority to harass and denounce scientists, when they don't even understand that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, or what that means, or why it matters. They count on their constituents being ignorant of the facts as well, because it's easier to get re-elected when your constituents think you're fighting on their side. And the flow of cash into your coffers, or into your state, or into your campaign are a lot more robust when you've got the fossil fuel industry at your back.

Anyone who has taken a little time to consider the evidence, and to grasp the basics of climate science, can see why it's not a good idea to pump the atmosphere up with CO2 and other greenhouse gasses. As the temperature rises, little by little, climatic problems get worse and worse. Weird, unseasonal weather shifts become more common. Strange weather becomes the norm. That is, in fact, what we are seeing happening right now.

If you were in the audience when the man addressed the firefighter with his bizarre accusations, would you side with him? Would you expect the firefighter to have to answer all his questions? Or would you tell him to shut up and go sit down?

It is not merely the authority of the firefighter that matters to your answer, it's also what you know about fires. This is also true of climate change. You don't have to be a climate scientist to follow the basic statements about what's happening. You can see for yourself that weird weather is becoming a real problem for the world. Trusting what climate scientists say is a reasonable response. They are experts in their field the same way that the firefighter in this story would, if she was a real person, be considered an expert in her field. We trust such experts because they have put in the hard work of becoming experts. Further, we know that they actually are experts because we can come to understand what they know, and, as we learn what they know, it continues to make sense. In contrast, those who are attempting to undermine climate science continue to use obfuscation, misdirection, outright falsehood, and even death threats (yes, literally), to silence opposition to their denial. Which should be very telling, indeed.