On Being an Elder

When I was growing up in the multicultural circumstances any child of a diplomat or military brat may find familiar, I often encountered the idea that I should show respect to my ‘elders and betters,’ with better meaning of higher social status than my own, e.g. the elders of a tribe, society, or a congregation. I found this hard to swallow given the tipsy hijinks and other questionable behavior I witnessed among the grownups, including those I loved. It has taken a lifetime to help me realize that becoming an elder worthy of respect isn’t a given. Rather, it is something earned, through a patient pursuit of perspective, insight, understanding, and wisdom. “With all thy getting, get understanding.” (Proverbs 4, King James version, and banner for Forbes editorials since the magazine was founded) 

The Carters at Habitat

I aspire to evolve into that kind of elder since, according to the Social Security Administration, my age places me squarely in the elderly cohort. But the irony is that today (with some obvious exceptions), some of the best models for Elder-hood are found outside my peer group, in the Millennials, already shaking up the status quo as freshman members of the new Congress, and the teenaged activists: Greta Thunberg on climate, the Parkland kids on gun reform. I can’t imagine one of them coming up to me after a poetry reading, as one 70-something did, suggesting that what was missing was ‘more uplifting’ material. Apparently my selection of poems on climate had rankled. Good, I thought, though smiling and toasting him with my cup of coffee, it wasn’t mere entertainment

My generation, and the Boomers that followed us, have a lot to answer for to our children and grandchildren about the squandered opportunities to address global warming when smaller, incremental lifestyle adjustments might have arrested, or at least mitigated, the threat. “‘I don’t want to speak too disparagingly of my generation (actually I do, we had a chance to change the world but opted for the Home Shopping Network instead),” wrote Stephen King. We’ve been kicking the can down the road, voting in people who created policy that reflected and protected our shortsighted views, and voting out of office those who would install solar panels on public buildings. We’ve been partying as if tomorrow would never come, as if it were always “50 or 75 years out,” (Andrew Wheeler, new EPA head), and many of us still are.

I hate to take my generation to task (actually, I’m OK with that), but it’s hard to decide which view is more dangerous: that of flat-out climate change Denialists like Wheeler and the president who hired him; those who think individual behavior change is too limited to matter so why bother; or the ‘we-got-this’ group who are banking on a technological fix to cool an overheating planet. But I do know the young, who have a far larger stake in the future than we do, are not wasting their time bickering among themselves, assigning blame, or sitting still. And they know how to communicate quickly and effectively via social media to get things moving. 

For those of us who have retired our marching shoes, there is still plenty we can to to support the children who are cutting school as a way of demanding action on climate, or the arts activists staging public ‘die-in’s’ to protest Big Pharma’s role in the opioid epidemic (to cite current forms of activism widely reported). We can write a generous check. Offer a bed, a shower, a ride, encouragement and/or meal to activists and poll workers. Help get out the vote. Vote for, and stay in touch with, the members of congress who show some spine on climate crisis, gun reform, corporate greed, and other issues that threaten our future as a nation and a species. Many of us have the financial clout to support companies who are committed to reducing their carbon impact and reject those who don’t by shopping elsewhere. We can also shop less, and more mindfully to help contain runaway consumerism. And we can, by our example, instruct those who follow. 

If you have other ideas about how to embrace the role of Elder in these challenging times, consider the comment box your welcome mat.  

Surviving This, Too

If there is a plot against America, the haphazard shredding of the civil order and institutions is as effective as anything more premeditated. That’s somewhat good news in this sense: the events we witness on a daily basis are obviously not the result of a coherent governing policy. That would require a modicum of competence. Instead, we are in the throes of ad hoc policies whose broad purpose are to comfort the comfortable and inflict further pain on the afflicted. Just pick up a newspaper.

Have you noticed the meme about ‘surviving’ this presidency? I think we already have, because if there is a silver lining to the current state of awful, it is that many of us who woke up only every 4 years to elect a president, have sharpened our wits and stiffened our citizen spines. We’re learning to resist when we can and workaround when we can’t. We won’t be fooled again. Exhibit A: November 6, 2018.

The last time I felt this awake to how personal politics are – and may I say, should be — was in 2000 when my candidate, who had written a book warning us about climate change, resource overshoot, and other threats to human civilization, (Earth in the Balance), was defeated by an opponent who would lead us into a unnecessary and costly war, by the slimmest of vote counts and a truly terrible Supreme Court decision*. By 2008, I didn’t need much convincing to get involved in a well-run ground game in a historic presidential campaign. In 2016, in my home state of Florida, the campaign mojo was missing, to be charitable. But I survived it 😬!

chutes-and-laddersWorkaround, computerese for “a strategy or technique used to overcome a defect or other problem in a program or system,” could be the motto of any number of political operatives that were birthed in the last two years. In addition to Indivisibles https://indivisible.org/, and Women’s March https://www.womensmarch.com/, another new kid on the block is Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Here are some ways they are debugging the broken gun control laws. They are bipartisan. They support candidates willing to stand up to the gun lobby. Instead of taking an anti-Second Amendment position, they advocate for gun safety in the home, citing statistics on suicide, domestic violence, and accidental shootings. www.momsdemandaction.org This organization of smart, young mothers has affiliated with deep-pocketed Everytown for Gun Safety, https://everytown.org/ founded by Michael Bloomberg in 2006. And, if my local chapter is an example, they are the most ferocious, well-prepared canvassers you’re likely to meet.

There’s a reason I focused on Moms Demand Action. Today, for a few scary moments, the significance of these grassroots movements came home to us: the local high school attended by our youngest grandson, went into Code Red Lockdown. All clear now, but for some newly traumatized teenagers.

* Retired Justice John Paul Stevens called Gore V. Bush one of the three biggest errors in his tenure on the Supreme Court.

New Yorker article on Indivisibles: https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/indivisible-an-early-anti-trump-group-plans-for-a-democratic-future

If you’re a Facebook user, check out this page, Done With Guns, started and maintained by Joy Richter Weisbrod after the Parkland massacre.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/1013848712101918/

Protect and Serve

At my desk this morning, my first act was to post to Facebook, a black and white photo of my spouse in the uniform of the US Navy, being saluted by his 3-year-old nephew. Though the world I most long for has eliminated the need for armed forces (cheers, Costa Rica!), I am proud of his service to our country, and grateful that he had the good fortune of serving between conflicts. I wish he’d kept those sharp uniforms, too!

Earlier, while still in my pajamas, I finished reading a book my friend, Laura, recommended a few weeks ago — one I heartily recommend to everyone: Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk. The book has been lumped together with other political bestsellers du jour, and it is certainly a sharp critique of the current administration. But its main message struck another chord: how well our government (in the capital G sense I wrote about previously) has functioned over time, regardless of the party in power. More importantly, the book lays out a portfolio of imminent risks, now that the true interests and intention of the incumbents have become clear, that is, close to zero in performing their sworn duty to protect and serve the United States and its citizens. Until recently, we have had the government to thank for focusing on activities like: “How to stop a virus, how to take a census, how to determine if some foreign country is seeking to obtain a nuclear weapon or if North Korean missiles can reach Kansas City.” No drama, no optics necessary or demanded.

service

(Photo: Mike Wilson, @mkwlsn)

Lewis, whose other bestsellers include The Big Short, The Blind Side and Moneyball (to mention three that were made into films) is a master storyteller, and if you have been following this blog, I can safely say you will be captivated, possibly even motivated to become more politically involved, by this latest book.  At the very least, perhaps you’ll come to understand as I did that “Roughly half the DOE’s annual $30 billion budget is spent on maintaining and guarding our nuclear arsenal.” We have as much to fear from accidents as from terrorism, it seems. And there’s the NOAA — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — yes, I had to look it up — $5 billion or 60% of the Department of Commerce’s budget and the largest data-gathering agency in the world. Without it, writes Lewis, “… no plane would fly, no bridge would be built, and no war would be fought — at least not well.” In other words, cabinet appointments filled with cronies and loyalists who lack the education, experience, understanding, or even interest in their missions as anything but an opportunity for self-enrichment, is a recipe for looming disaster on an epic scale.

If Veterans Day makes you think of our military heroes — and it should — we might also want to celebrate those unsung heroes toiling away in inner offices, who have done more to protect all Americans than the people we commonly think of as our leaders. I am talking about career civil servants (toward whom I admittedly have a bias) who are mission-  as opposed to money-driven. A few who stand out for me in this collection of extraordinary, dedicated and smart people: former Deputy Energy Secretary, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall who led the U.S. mission to remove chemical weapons from Syria; former NOAA chief, Kathy Sullivan, who grasped the human element in disaster preparedness; former head of Rural Development (USDA), Lillian Salerno, responsible for the $220 billion bank “that serviced the poorest of the poor in rural America.” Yes, those voters.

The Fifth Risk has been called ‘a love-letter to federal workers,” and why they deserve praise instead of the blame usually piled on when something goes awry. Why they deserve a raise and respect. And why we need to vote in people who understand what has always made this country exceptional. Read it at the risk of becoming better informed and more appreciative of what it really means to protect and serve.

Accidental Activist

It’s Election Day Eve, the most important election since I became a naturalized American citizen in 1972, years after I was eligible through marriage, the delay in protest of the Viet Nam War. The Tallahassee yoga studio shootings in the same week we mourned the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, weighs on me, especially as a yoga instructor who signs off each class with ‘Shanti, shanti, shanti, (peace) and a resident of a state where meaningful gun reform has been a non-starter. You do all you can: join an Indivisible group, host a house party for so-called Hot Democrats, canvass your neighborhood, join Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Women’s March, Hustle-remind voters of their duty. And I’ll never understand why so many do not exercise their franchise.

I’m in awe of the commitment and energy of my activist colleagues in these resistance groups. My genetic material is skewed toward civil service, and I inherited from at least two generations a faith in Government with a capital G, as if it were a kindly parent with the responsibility to protect and bring out the best in its citizens. America even more so, I’ve always believed. What other founding documents even mention ‘the pursuit of happiness?’ It’s worth fighting for.

Voting was something of a novelty in my native Burma (now Myanmar). When I became eligible at 18, I embraced it with the same alacrity I had absorbed my parents’ post WWII optimism about the prospects for our newly independent democracy. Two years later, I saw how quickly this could be overturned one dawn in 1962, when we were roused by the sound of explosions in the direction of the university. Within hours of the military takeover, politicians, dissident students, journalists, and supreme court justices, were rounded up like criminals and held without trial for what would be years. One of these was the editor-in-chief of a prominent newspaper, and my much-loved boss. Nothing like this could ever happen here, right? It’s unthinkable.

But then, so was the possibility that the birthright issue could affect my two children, given that their father was an American citizen. Most knowledgeable people (on both sides of the aisle) say this is a phony threat. But in light of the whiplash change we all live with these days, I (and my kids) would be unwise to ignore it.

And yet, we cannot give in to despair. People have been sharing We Are the World on Facebook, and the Jewish nurse who cared for the wounded Pittsburgh shooter wrote a deeply moving article on why and how she felt compelled to do that. On a book tour in the UK, Anne Lamott memorably said, “Earth is forgiveness school.” I share these items because I hope more people might read and even share them, especially the people in my life the least likely to. My ‘friend’ list holds many people I barely know, added in the flurry of my early ‘why not?’ days of social media, about four years that feel like forever. The numerically best response to a post of mine I’ve seen lately is an indication of how hungry we are to lighten up, have some fun, return to normal. We were having brunch with some friends this week, and my ever-playful spouse grabbed the doily on his plate, tore it in half, and inserted it under the collar of his shirt. A borrowed pair of our friend’s eyeglasses and voila! our joyful tribute to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, captured on smart phone and posted. A little explosion of hearts, likes, and comments followed.

Times like these, I think about my friend and Transition Movement colleague, Jean, who is busy creating a spiritual center on the acres of property in another state, on which she and her family launched their dream to live in harmony with nature — permaculture, bee-keeping, to name a couple of their practices. This new direction began with spontaneous community gatherings around bonfires, with music and food, and shared dreams of the future. The family, with a few partners, aims to evolve that into a more formal center and I gladly wrote a ‘seed’ money donation. Recently, in response to an email lament of mine about the state of the country and world, Jean had this to offer: “… perhaps the most revolutionary act is to have FUN.”

This puts me in mind of Wendell Berry’s quote (Manifesto): “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” I like it so much, I’m using it to inspire the new version of this blog, Transition Tales. Same URL for now, but with content more reflective of where I am now (in Tree pose, on the edge.) The earlier posts and the tags remain for now. It is time for a change. Tomorrow, may it be so!

No Gift-Wrap Required

December 4, 2017

Beloved Family,

For many people less fortunate than we, this has been a particularly perilous year. We are thankful every day that we wake up in a comfortable home, in a safe, clean, functioning municipality, with access to clean water, cheap energy, and decent healthcare, not to mention our well-stocked larder and closets, art-filled walls, and crammed bookcases. We are grateful to not be among a population, here and around the world, targeted for oppression, or whose very survival is threatened.

One thing you can say about us Americans is that we are perhaps the most giving, charitable people on Earth. Of course, some non-governmental organizations exist because our own social safety net does not match our great wealth. Nonetheless, I believe it’s safe to say that the state of philanthropy here is one measure of national greatness about which we can all be proud. As JFK said in his Ask Not speech: For of those to whom much is given, much is required.

So much for the preamble; now to the point. We invite you this year and every year going forward, to make your gift to us a contribution, in our name if you wish, to one of the charities listed below.

Here is a selected list of 501C3 organizations, all of them vetted with Guidestar: https://www.guidestar.org/search.

The tax deduction, of course, is yours. And, no gift-wrap required!

International Rescue Committee https://gifts.rescue.org/

Doctors Without Borders http://www.msf.org/en/donate

Partners in Health https://www.pih.org/

Take Stock in Children http://www.takestockinchildren.org/

The Nature Conservancy https://www.nature.org/?redirect=https-301

Thank you, thank you, thank you! Joyous Christmas, Happy Hanukkah.

Love,
Us

Now Hear This

Last Friday evening, I was in good company and I don’t just mean the company of other artists at The Box Gallery’s The New American Patriot: Climate Art in the Public Interest, though the work — mostly visual — was often powerful, and my contribution in keeping with the theme.

FreeVector-23So Little Time: A Spoken Word Performance on Climate Crisis in Four Parts is a 15-minute compilation of poetry and prose drawn from several sources and includes one original work.
I had been thinking about doing such a piece for over a year, as my passion for climate and women’s issues began to overlap. Putting the show together was fulfilling in itself in that I drank deeply from a very large spring. I am grateful to the curators for accepting my proposal and to the friends who showed up to hear my performance, and hung in there despite significant acoustic challenges.

As I need hearing aids myself, I know intimately how frustrating it can be to miss what is being said. But those who struggled to hear me are only part of the good company in which I found myself during the performance. It later dawned on me that my voice – and I don’t mean to overstate this relatively minor event given the scale of the issue – was just one more that isn’t being heard because 1. There is too much other noise, 2. Listening well is an endangered skill, and 3. We have trained ourselves to turn a deaf ear to whatever messes with our worldview. And that is a huge part of the problem for which there is no other solution but to do what climate scientists, activists, shamans, actors, writers and poets have been doing: keep telling the inconvenient truth, in as many places as possible, in as many ways as possible with the intention that words will become deeds. Just keep on keeping on. And I plan to.  If my readers have thoughts about venues and/or other outlets, including social media, I’m all ears!

I am immensely grateful to Green Writers Press for permission to use work from So Little Time: Words and Images for a World in Climate Crisis, compiled largely by poet/climate activist, Greg Delanty. I also chose, and was granted permission to use, a poem by Rachel Lewis, a 2014 winner of the Cape Farewell/ Young Poets Network Competition for poems exploring climate change. And I drew from The Guardian’s Keep it in the Ground collection, under fair use permission. My friend, Jean Cavanaugh, allowed me to quote from an uplifting Facebook post entitled Scarcity is a Myth. We all deserve a hearing.

I end for now with a poem from So Little Time.

Global Warming ~ Jane Hirshfield

When his ship first came to Australia,
Cook wrote, the natives
Continued fishing, without looking up.
Unable, it seems, to fear what was too large to be comprehended.

More:

See internal links for my sources, including the excellent volume, So Little Time (available from http://greenwriterspress.com/books/our-first-books/so-little-time/, Amazon and other book outlets). The Guardian’s collection, curated by UK poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, is read by actors, James Franco and Jeremy Irons, among others.

Marshallese poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner speaking at the UN Climate Leaders Summit in 2014

Almost anything by Wendell Berry

Walking for Our Grandchildren, II

Miami Climate MarchIt has been two years since my spouse and I participated in the Walk for Our Grandchildren in Washington DC. This Wednesday, we are joining the People’s Climate March in Miami. If you live there and are paying attention, it won’t be news that rising seas combined with geology are already playing havoc with the city’s drainage system, regardless of storm activity. How Miami would come through a major hurricane no one seems willing to address, at least, not officially. It would hurt the booming economy, is the political mantra of the denial crowd.

Grandparents tend to have more at stake in the future than other people, so I find it strange that these marches are not bringing hundreds if not thousands of us into the streets in nonviolent demonstrations. The 2013 Washington Grandparent march drew about 300 people, a small number given the credentials of the speaker, longtime activist and author, Bill McKibben.  A handful of marchers were arrested. It made the news. OK, that action and others like it may have succeeded in killing the KXL Pipeline, but that is clearly more symbolic than a real shift in direction. The reality is, trains carrying oil roll through suburban towns like mine every single day. Organizers of the Miami march project between 500-8,000 people, a far cry from the 40,000 that assembled in New York last fall even at the high point.  Not close to the 250,000 Germans who protested the TPP this week.

Meanwhile, despite clear danger and plenty of implementable plans in the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Action Plan that could at least put some brakes on the inevitable, coastal cities are bristling with construction cranes. Realtors are talking recovery. New celebrity restaurants and name boutiques are opening in areas vulnerable to flooding. And Dr. Oz recently dropped a reported $18 million on a Palm Beach mansion. Go figure.

All of this sharpens my concern for our five grandchildren, especially the two 17-year-old grandsons in their final year of high school, looking ahead to college next year. Graduates are finding work in the shadow economy or grabbing jobs well below their qualifications now. It’s hard to see how this will improve in 4-5 years. The larger question that troubles my sleep is, what kind of education can prepare our grandchildren for a world completely unlike the one they grew up on, sans cheap energy?  If the COP21 Summit in Paris this November falls short of its carbon reduction targets as it appears it will, their generation could be facing climate events of an unprecedented scale and velocity; resource wars; and massive population displacements. Our military is certainly preparing for these outcomes* even as our politicians continue to fiddle, tweak data, or flat out deny the evidence.

I’m told this march will be more like a festival, with music and dancing, plus colorful banners and puppets. We will walk about a mile between the Miami government center and the Torch of Friendship where there will be another rally. It’s made up of a coalition of the like-minded, from the League of Women Voters to the Sierra Club. We’re also voters who will choose our presidential candidate through the lens of climate change. Thomas Friedman’s recent Op-Ed: Stuff Happens to the Environment, Like Climate Change doesn’t mince words “… if you vote for a climate skeptic for president, you’d better talk to your kids first, because you will have to answer to them later.” We answering to them now, before they ask. With our hearts, and our feet.

* “Climate change will affect the DoD’s ability to defend the nation and poses immediate risks to U.S. national security.” 

What We Can Know

Like transplants from elsewhere, we go to Florida’s beautiful, relatively uncrowded beaches in summer to fill our lungs with salt air, press our bare feet into the sand, and look for turtle tracks. It turns out that 2015 has been a record year for turtle nesting in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.  Sure enough, there were plenty of fresh tracks in evidence on a recent Sunday morning, many new nests, and a researcher on dune buggy taking his morning tally.

Preserving life other than our own is for many people an instinctive response, one that affirms our interconnection with and interdependence on all living things, including the Earth itself.  Some years ago on this same stretch of beach, we rescued about 20 turtle hatchlings by keeping hungry seagulls in the air while the young made a dash for the waves. This race that relatively few actually win, apparently also hones the turtles’ survival skills and increases their chance of living into adulthood and reproducing. We were giddy with joy that morning, though none the wiser about the way of turtles, e.g. how do they know which way the water is? Or how is it that their mothers, and some day these newly hatched females grown to adulthood, catch a ride on the Gulf Stream and return to this very beach to lay their eggs? Loggerheads, Leatherbacks and green turtles are (unlike urban trees, alas) protected by law, so evidence that they are thriving is reason for celebration. But more than that, I’m curious about how significant this shift, if indeed it is a lasting one, could be in big picture terms. What might it suggest about the future health of our world if turtles, like bald eagles, any life form for that matter, do well enough to be removed from the endangered list? Or when damage can be reversed as we step back and let nature takes its course. We don’t always know what will work until we see what happens.

You have to be encouraged about the most recent news about bees, too, as well as for ‘a new breed of bee keepers‘ who are swelling the ranks, according to a recent story in the Palm Beach Post’s business section. The newcomers are entering the business as a sideline, drawn by the high demand for honey, but what if they could become part of a citizen movement to preserve and strengthen bee colonies? An associate professor of entomology is quoted as saying that CCD (colony collapse disorder) is “gone or pretty minimal,” which suggests that a turnaround via human intervention is possible. And bees are kind of important to our food security.

Whatever drives us to discovery, anyone of us can only know a small fraction about our world relative to what there is to know, and most of what we discover is through hands-on experience, experimentation and observation. But I believe we are obligated to engage with and learn whatever we can, and in that process come to love the world and want to save it. In that context, here’s a photo of one of our grandsons, an incoming high school senior who aspires to become an aeronautical engineer, Shaw harnesses the winddoing an experiment of his own with wind power on Mousam Lake, Maine. Earlier, he and his youngest brother successfully ‘sailed’ their canoe across this same lake using this same outsize umbrella. When you recall that before the discovery and rapid implementation of fossil fuels, humans explored the known — and unknown — world entirely under sail, perhaps this augers well for the great re-skilling, a back-to-the-future, intergenerational strategy I believe is inevitable for our survival as a species. I am glad to leave speculating on origins and causation to scientists, philosophers and those of religious persuasion. And when we need a little humility to prick our 21st century techno-arrogance bubble, we might channel rock star astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who reminds us that something called Dark Matter is accelerating the expansion of our universe, but we don’t even know what it is. I highly recommend his terrific on-demand StarTalk Radio Show, a combination of Car Talk (a lot of joking and boisterous laughter) with great interviews and razor sharp observations. In the recent edition that included snippets of deGrasse Tyson’s interview with Ariana Huffington, she noted that far from being in opposition, scientists and people of faith are united by a sense of wonder. One cool woman. The show ended with a call for greater scientific literacy for everyone. May it be so, and may it begin in the home, in schools, and the House.

Unplug Yourself

Here’s a tip for a healthier, more resilient future: get outdoors more and leave your smart phone at home when you do. There’s plenty of evidence that suggests we need what nature gives us for free: refreshment, relaxation, and a sense that we are part of something larger than the manmade environment in which we spend most of our waking hours. In South Florida, indoors automatically means air-conditioning 24/7, breathing recirculated air. Like being on an endless plane ride. Children who spend time playing outdoors every day are not only less likely to become obese, they do better in school. Even elderly shut-ins benefit from being near some green plants, particularly if they care for them. High touch.

Indoor living, whether at work or home, or at a popular restaurant like Duffy’s, is screen time, all the time.  I love to cook but increasingly go to the Internet for a recipe rather than consult one of the many cookbooks I own. Lately, I find myself checking the weather on my smartphone instead of opening a window or going outside to sniff the air. I confess I am hopelessly addicted to The Skimm for my quick dose of news, about all I can take. Most bedtimes, the urge to check email or Facebook one last time is all but irresistible. In wakeful periods during the night, I’m on my tablet reading a novel or catching up on one of the blogs I follow. At least I notice how these habits are changing me in ways I don’t like, stoking impatience and compulsive behavior. You have no doubt realized that Big Brother Internet is watching your searches and online shopping.

Here’s something else I find worrying, for myself and even more for my grandchildren who already exhibit serious dependency on screens (don’t even get me started on video gaming!). We are learning to depend on our visual, and to some extent auditory, senses at the cost of other senses that make us complete human beings. Since touch and smell are more connected to the emotions, is it possible that our addiction to screens themselves — not to mention our compulsion to miss nothing — is changing our relationships with each other as well as with our life support system.

Screen Addiction is Taking a Toll on Children writes personal health columnist, Jane Brody, in a report that is sure to resonate with grandparents and add to our concerns for their future. Perhaps you, too, have witnessed your grandchildren gradually change from affectionate, engaging pre-schoolers who were delighted to see you, always ready to play a game or share a joke, into Tweens or Teens who are so captivated by their devices, they barely acknowledge your presence. To be sure, adolescence is hard on everyone including the ones going through it, but this feels different from familiar teen angst, much more invasive and scary and with ramifications we may not fully comprehend. “Many come to view the real world as fake,” writes Brody. For those of us concerned about the effect of violent video games on children, this is chilling news indeed. Brody’s not letting adults off the hook either.  Her advice is sound: How to Cut Children’s Screen Time: Say No to Yourself First. 

Screens also interfere with our experience with the actual.  Ever noticed how many parents at a recital or school play are making a video of the event as opposed to just experiencing it?  So can they be said to be truly present, or to put it another way, what exactly were they present for? Pixels on a tiny screen?  And what will they remember later: being there, or just what the video tells them they saw? Comic and social critic, Louis CK, does a riff on this subject that is typical of his style: you’re laughing and feeling a chill down your spine at the same time.

kids walkingHey, I love my smartphone. I love texting and sharing photos. I love the built-in GPS that gets me places, the restaurant reviews that save me time and money, being able to leave the heavier equipment at home when I’m on the go and still stay in touch. But we all need to give it a rest. Screen addiction is not healthy for children and other living things and it is not healthy for the Earth. The good news — and there has been more of this lately, from Pope Francis’ encyclical to the rise of solar power through unlikely alliances (see Green Tea Coalition) — is that we can do something about it.  We won’t save the world and our own skins by changing our lightbulbs and shopping greener, but a re-engagement — all senses open — with what we have and what we stand to lose: the only home we have, just might. Turn off, unplug, go hug a tree or a friend.

Like Water For Avocados

After an announcement about a possible shortage of Hass Avocados caused near panic (and perhaps some welcome publicity), Mexican food chain, Chipolte, tried to soothe its fans with an announcement that there is no “guacapocalypse” in the offing.  Really?  Avocados are a thirsty crop, second only to another California favorite, the endangered almond.  According to Mother Jones, it takes 74.1 gallons of water to grow one pound of avocados as opposed to strawberries (9.8 gallons) or lettuce (5.4 gallons). For the time being, the California Hass is big business for the state: “… about 80 percent of all avocados eaten worldwide and … more than $1 billion a year in revenues in the United States alone.”  (California Avocado Commission).  

Headlines like this one from Newsweek 3/13/15: NASA: California Has One Year of Water Left, should be setting off alarm bells in the Congressional denialist camp on the basis of the economic impact alone, with the nation’s food security right up there next to it.  So it’s particularly bad news for all of us who love avocados — heck, like to eat regularly! — that Senator Ted Cruz now heads the Senate Science Committee, and that he has told NASA to stick to space and drop its climate investigations.  We need to pay close27_smap20150224-16 attention to what happens next.  After all, budget cuts that could threaten programs like NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Soil Moisture Mapper (SMAP)  — a satellite that can improve weather forecasts, monitor droughts and predict floods —  will hurt us all, now and in the immediate future. Maybe we should take a page from Senator Snowball’s playbook and start jamming the inboxes of legislators of his ilk with our favorite guacamole recipes.  This sounds like a job for Beautiful Trouble, fearless artist/activists.  Hi-jinks and hackery that exercise our creativity and even soothe our souls.   

It’s great to learn that Al Gore is newly optimistic that we can bring ourselves back from the brink, but yesterday on World Water Day, I couldn’t help thinking about what ordinary Californians are doing about a drought so severe, it has its own website?  Not nearly enough, according to figures from January this year which showed that conservation of water dropped from 22% to 9%, possibly spurred by an end of the year rainy period.  We are so addicted to short-term — or maybe it’s magical — thinking!  No wonder we are so easily distracted by shiny new things, blockbuster movies, and gossip about people we’ll never meet or particularly want to.

So I decided to ask a friend who lives in Huntington Beach about the water crisis, and she assured me that although some of her neighbors still have lawns (and presumably, have not as yet been prohibited from watering them), she has embraced a more desert scape, that is, rocks and succulents.  OK, it’s something, and granted, this is a minuscule sample.  But isn’t this typical of a common mismatch between the complexity of the issues we face — economic, health, safety, civil society — and the response of too many people like my well-meaning friend, as well as those in positions of power?  California officials, writes Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, are “staying in emergency mode and praying for rain.”

Although drought isn’t an issue for Florida at the moment, we have our own water challenges: a rising sea (flooding, coastal erosion, threat to infrastructure and property) and the migration of salt into the agricultural water supply.  So much for the idea that California’s agricultural losses might be somewhat mitigated by Florida’s food growing power.  For more on this including the Sea Level Rise Symposium 2014, see my blog posts from last July, Water: Next Capitalist Tool? and November, Raising Fields.  Not enough water or the wrong kind — none of this is good news for living things.  But compared to what many see as the threat of water wars in the not too distant future, these issues are a drop in the bucket.

What can we do?  First, recognize that climate change is with us here and now and that we humans have no history or experience with the kinds of change it will likely produce in our lives.  On a beautiful, cool morning in South Florida as I write this from my patio, it’s possible to imagine that we have a decade or two before we are forced to adjust, to take action, or possibly, flee for higher ground. Even if that were true, it’s cold comfort for our children and grandchildren. Second, cut your consumption: repair, reuse, repurpose, skip the upgrade, minimize air travel, and make do while these are choices we can still make freely. Third: ask yourself to imagine a world without your favorite food (yes, avocados), a beloved bird, flower, tree, pollinators in general, a particular beach, a cherished vacation spot, a life experience you now take for granted (hiking a pristine trail, growing vegetables, access to a wide variety of fresh food, taking a hot shower, feeling safe on my streets and in my home, are all on my list).  What would you do to preserve these ordinary treasures, for yourself and those you love?  Do it.

See also: The Dark Mountain Project and Movement Generation