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Drought

Austerity

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2014)

“Rigid beliefs make disappointments seem unbearable, whereas realistic beliefs help us to accept disappointment and go on from there.” Eileen Kennedy-Moore

We are currently in the midst of a local drought that coincides with a state drought that coincides with a regional drought that coincides with the global climate change crisis that more and more scientists believe is now irreversible and will soon, as in the next decade or sooner, lead to famine, wars, plagues, the death of billions of people, and possibly the extinction of all, or nearly all, life on earth. Darn. There go my books and music being rediscovered five hundred years hence as the great unheralded literary and musical creations of Now. There go all my favorite species of plants and animals, and my favorite people, too. There goes living to a riper old age than the age I eventually live to.

According to even fairly cautious climate change scientists and climate change research institutes, things are beyond dire for human and other life on earth. I wonder if that’s why I’ve been feeling the need to nap more frequently of late. Humans have never lived on a planet with so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and maybe this excessive amount of carbon dioxide induces drowsiness. According to many of these same scientists, the only hope of slowing and reversing climate change and the disastrous effects of that change—an extremely slim hope at best—would be for all fossil-fuel-dependent societies to entirely collapse, which would result in the cessation of fossil fuels being burned, which would quickly lead to famine, wars, plagues, and the deaths of billions of people, but maybe not the extinction of all, or nearly all, life on earth. I say maybe not because of those hundreds of pesky nuclear power plants all over the world that require enormous amounts of electricity and functional infrastructures to keep those tens of thousands of nuclear fuel rods cool (even when the plants are no longer operating) so they don’t melt down and explode and radiate the entire earth.

For the time being, Marcia and I have plenty of water for our minimal water needs, but if the current drought were to turn into a multi-year drought, which it very well might given that local, state, national and global weather patterns are wonkier and crazier and more extreme than ever before, what would we and the other people in Mendocino do for water? Thinking about what we would do in response to a local catastrophe is an interesting (and scary) way to start thinking about what humans will do en masse in response to such catastrophes that are occurring with more and more frequency around the world.

I suppose if most of the people around here couldn’t get enough water to lead minimally decent lives, most of the people around here would try to go elsewhere, assuming there were relatively safe and affordable ways to go elsewhere and there were other places with plenty of water and housing and employment for thousands of people from here and millions of people from other drought-stricken places. You see where I’m going with this. Without enough water, our entire local and state and national economy and society would be kaput. And according to climate change scientists, not enough water is soon going to be reality for billions of people on earth—very soon. So where will all those people go?

To put the current drought in historical perspective, 2013 was the driest year in California in at least 165 years. That is to say, humans started keeping records of rainfall hereabouts in 1848, and since then there has never been a drier year than the year just ending, with not a drop more rain predicted for Mendocino and most of California in the few days remaining in 2013. Mendocino’s rainfall total for the entire calendar year will end up being less than fifteen inches. Our historical average here on the coast is fifty-one inches a year. Let us hope that January and February prove to be fabulously wet months, though we got less than two inches of rain all of last January and February.

Before he died in 2000, Marc Reisner, the famous writer about the history of water in California, predicted that water would become so scarce in California over the coming years that at least half of California’s thirty-eight million human residents would be compelled to go eastward, far eastward, to the New York side of the Mississippi River where rain continues (currently) to fall in abundance. However, Marc was not privy to the current computer models suggesting that most of the interior of the United States will be too hot for human habitation in another ten to twenty years, so those twenty million Californians will not only have to go east, but north. Yet north is…Canada. No problem. Canada has tiny army. America has big army. We conquer Canada for their land and water resources and then several million lucky former Americans will go up there to live.

Sound farfetched? Consider this. Swiftly changing weather patterns in Spain (population 47 million) suggest that the climate and amount of rainfall in the Iberian Peninsula will soon resemble that of present-day Algeria, which means most of those Spanish people will have to head north to find enough water and food to survive. But wouldn’t you know it, France and 66 million French people are already there.

A friend recently sent me a link to a slideshow of shocking photographs of three huge Chinese cities: Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu. These pictures appear to have been taken on moonless nights, when, in fact, they were taken on sunny days when the smog was so thick that no sunlight could penetrate the dense black air. So toxic is the air in these cities that for many days of the year children and elderly people are not allowed outside. Hundreds of flights a week are canceled at the international airports servicing these cities, yet the people and governments of these cities do nothing to address the terrible problem, though China says they will begin taking steps to slowly shift away from burning coal as their primary means of producing energy. However, for now and the foreseeable future, the people in these cities will live (for as long as they can) with the deplorable situation because the alternative, in the short term, would be the loss of jobs and a slowing of economic growth.

I mention these terrifying images from China because I feel that we, the American people and American government, are doing essentially nothing to address the terrible problem of climate change that has so severely darkened the future of life on earth. What will it take before we realize that our individual actions multiplied by hundreds of millions of us are the cause of these terrible overarching problems? When I look at those pictures of tens of millions of Chinese people trying to live in atmospheres black with poison, I think the answer must be that most of us will never realize we are the source of the problem because we have lost our natural connections to the earth and to the fabulously interconnected processes that make life on this precious planet possible.

Despite (or maybe because of) the dismal prognosis for life on earth, I’ve been having vivid dreams lately (and remembering them) in which I am confronted with seemingly unsolvable puzzles and insurmountable obstacles, yet I somehow manage to solve the puzzles and surmount the obstacles and wake up feeling optimistic, if not about the future of humanity and the planet, then about the next few hours and the possibility I may learn something or write something or play something on the piano or have a conversation with someone or plant a seed or have a vibrant thought that sparks a reaction from Universe or at least gives me the feeling I may have sparked a reaction from Universe.

Wishful dreaming? What am I talking about? I’m talking about why I continue to write a weekly article and novels and music in the face of the unsolvable puzzles and insurmountable obstacles that may soon render me and every other breathing and photosynthesizing thing dead. I am not in denial of what is happening to the earth, yet I continue to believe that for however long we are alive, our purpose is to consciously interact with Universe in loving and creative ways. Universe, so say my teachers, loves for us to take creative regenerative actions, because Universe, more than anything, loves to respond to what we do. I know I’m anthropomorphizing Universe by endowing her with the ability to love. So sue me. Happy New Year!

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Disappointment

Whilst discussing my hopes and expectations for the San Francisco Giants with Mark Scaramella, he suggested I try my hand at writing about disappointment. I just hope my attempt doesn’t disappoint him.

“Disappointment is a sort of bankruptcy—the bankruptcy of a soul that expends too much in hope and expectation.” Eric Hoffer

What is disappointment? The New Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines disappointment as: dejection or distress caused by the non-fulfillment of desire or expectation. Substitute the word suffering for distress and we land smack dab at the outset of Buddhist philosophy. The First Noble Truth (and I have yet to read a satisfactory explanation of why the Four Noble Truths are noble rather than big or unavoidable or groovy) is that life is suffering. I recently read an article in a Buddhist magazine suggesting that suffering might not be the most accurate translation of the Sanskrit word Buddha purportedly used. The article suggested that annoying might be a more accurate translation. And in some texts the First Noble Truth is stated as: Life is full of suffering (though not necessarily completely full, which would allow for the occasional pizza, chocolate bar, or delightful flirtation).

But seriously folks, the Second Noble Truth states that the cause (or origin) of suffering is attachment. If we can learn not to be attached to things and people and baseball teams winning the World Series, or even just to being alive, then our suffering will lessen and might even disappear entirely. And check this out: in the absence of suffering, we would still be alive, which is a blatant contradiction of the First Noble Truth and necessitates restating the First and Second Noble Truths as: Life is suffering (or disappointing) unless we aren’t attached to anything (very much), in which case life is…what? Joyful? Maybe. I don’t know.

Here is what I think Buddha said: “The First and Second Groovy Truths combine to say that we suffer disappointment if we are attached to any sort of outcome, such as owning an elephant or getting laid. Indeed, if we can learn to dispense with expectations, we will cease to be disappointed, and in the absence of disappointment our suffering will vanish.” Since no one knows precisely what Buddha said, that’s my guess.

“Rigid beliefs make disappointments seem unbearable, whereas realistic beliefs help us to accept disappointment and go on from there.” Eileen Kennedy-Moore

The root of disappointment is appointment, a word that joined the ranks of our ancestral vocabulary shortly after Olde English morphed into Middle English and our various vernaculars mingled shamelessly with French. The French word was appointement, and meant an agreement, a contract, a decree. “We hereby make an appointment, honey, to meet in the forest for some hanky panky.” From which it follows that a disappointment was the breaking of an agreement, the violation of a contract, or the ignoring of a decree.

Thus we might construe that an expectation is an agreement we make with ourselves, i.e. that the Giants are going to win the World Series, and the violation of this agreement would be a disappointment.

“Nobody succeeds beyond his or her wildest expectations unless he or she begins with some wild expectations.” Ralph Charell

I expected I would be an immensely successful writer and musician. That was my conscious expectation. My unconscious expectation was that I would be a colossal failure. The trajectory of my career as a writer and a musician is a perfect reflection of those dueling expectations, with the unconscious expectation always eventually trumping my conscious efforts. For many years I blamed others for the recurring disappointments of my life; but I understand now that the sabotage of my creative efforts was an inside job.

For instance, just as my second novel Forgotten Impulses was about to be published in 1980, I received an excited call from my editor at Simon & Schuster. Time magazine was going to run a big fat rave review of the novel, so fat and big that an additional fifteen thousand copies of Forgotten Impulses were being printed, and Sales, previously reluctant to support the book, had finally agreed to put some real money into promotion and distribution. The next day I got a call from a Time photographer arranging to take my picture for the review. The photo shoot was a dream come true, and the photographer’s last words to me were, “The buzz in New York says your book will be huge.”

Three days before the issue of Time containing the rave was to go to press, the review was inexplicably pulled. The Sales honchos cancelled all promotion and distribution of Forgotten Impulses, and cancelled the publication of my next novel, Louie & Women, for which Simon & Schuster had paid a large advance. And my mainstream writing career, for all intents and purposes, was destroyed. Why? I never discovered the outside why, but I have no doubt that in the ballroom of my psyche the demons gleefully celebrated the triumph of self-loathing.

Thinking back to that particular disappointment, and to many other similar experiences with my books and screenplays and music, I feel disappointed anew. And what I find most interesting about the sensations attendant to my disappointment is that they are indistinguishable from the telltale feelings of another emotional state I know a great deal about: depression.

Depression, one might say, is a state of constant disappointment. But why would someone be constantly disappointed? Well, according to the Second Groovy Truth, we suffer disappointment if we are attached to any sort of outcome. Thus constant disappointment must be the result of a constant attachment to things being a particular way. And wouldn’t constant attachment to feeling rotten have to be a deep and hardwired propensity, as in a propensity developed in childhood? I think so. I think it is only human to be disappointed about losing a game or not getting a job we wanted or getting dumped by our girlfriend. But staying disappointed, I contend, is a neurotic tendency engendered in us by those in charge of engendering our tendencies when we were infants and children.

“I am not in this world to live up to other people’s expectations, nor do I feel that the world must live up to mine.” Fritz Perls

So maybe the Giants won’t win the World Series this year, and maybe this article isn’t what Mark had in mind when he suggested I write about disappointment; but now that I have explored disappointment for the last two weeks, and exhumed some of those pesky demons still inhabiting my innards, I am confident that my disappointment about the Giants or anything else will not be as great as it might otherwise have been. Why? Because the demons of disappointment lose their power in the light of conscious scrutiny. And I am now prepared to proclaim, “So what if we didn’t win the World Series? The important thing is we gave it our best shot. We played the game with all our hearts, and that is victory enough.”

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, October 2010)