Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Another blog is on the way.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Coal is Us

Bill McKibben is coming to Bellingham on May 31. That would be pretty exciting if it weren’t for the reason he’s dropping by.  On March 28 President Obama opened up public land in Wyoming to coal mining. (This just a few days after he lit a candle at Oscar Romero’s tomb in San Salvador—see my April 1 post.  Who is this guy?)  Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company, will mine Wyoming’s Powder River basin, and has contracted with SSA Marine (partially owned by Goldman-Sachs) to build a terminal at Cherry Point in Ferndale, the next, smaller town up the road from us, enabling shipment of from 20 to 50 million metric tons of coal per year to Asia, mainly China. Wyoming to China via Whatcom County, Washington. Imagine our surprise. 

“There’s virtually no place on the continent that’s done a better job of showing us how to live locally,” McKibben said to the Cascadia Weekly (May 25). “Now, by quirk of geography, Bellingham is going to have to make some decisions about what kind of role it wants to play globally.”

About three hundred jobs are at stake for Ferndale, more while the terminal is built, and like every other area in the U.S., we could use them. But coal chugging along train tracks next to the waterfront in Bellingham will set back plans for developing what used to be the Georgia Pacific paper mill and surrounding lands, and that development represents more jobs still, although many will be service jobs.  Bellingham can look forward to more noise and diesel pollution if Gateway is built, but none of this is the point, not for McKibben.

Carbon emissions have already raised global temperatures one degree, and weather over the last year has illustrated what kinds of havoc climate change can wreak. Spring in Bellingham is wetter than it used to be and will get wetter still. Small and blighted tomato crops are one thing, but even kale needs sunshine. McKibben and others have spent their adult lives explaining in a thousand different ways that we have to live differently or we won’t live at all. Coal may be plentiful but it is the dirtiest of fossil fuels.  “If we burn coal at the rate envisioned by the owners of Powder River basin—here or in China,” McKibben says, “it’s very clear that will push us far, far deeper into serious global warming territory.  The highest use of our coal reserves is to keep them where God put them—underground where they can do no harm.” 

One thing this is not about is energy independence. The coal’s leaving, remember?  It might be about the money the U.S. owes China, and the pressure that debt exerts in the other Washington.  It’s very likely about Peabody Energy’s political clout. (Half the electricity in the U.S. is coal-generated.) And it is surely about raising the standard of living for 1.5 billion people in China—in the short run.

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, by Bill McKibben, will keep you awake at night.  You’ll be in good company.  Wish us luck. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Tarot of Books

I spent the weekend going through books.  My culling strategy turned out to be simple: I picked each book up and decided whether to keep it.

Once upon a time I read Tarot cards. Before shuffling the deck, I picked a signifier, one card that suggested my current state, leafing through the deck until I saw an image that rang true.  Actually, that’s the only part of Tarot reading that did me any good, searching out the card that described how I felt in a particular moment—conditions prevailing, changes beginning to register, The Empress, The Magician, The Hanged Man.  If you are a conscientious shuffler, the rest of the cards, the ones you actually turn up, are selected—I know this is hard to hear—randomly.

I picked up Meridel de Seuer’s Salute to Spring and after a moment re-shelved it. I held a biography of Agnes Smedley in my hands, considered the beautiful face on the cover, then threw it a box.  John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius stayed, but Harold Bloom’s Hamlet: Poem Unlimited went. I’ve read as much Harold Bloom, I decided, as I ever will.

Every book I looked at over the weekend felt like the signifier of a past self.  If I hadn’t read it, which was true of ten to twenty percent of my books, why not? Why had I chosen it in the first place? I recalled the state of mind I was in when I bought Don’t Be Nice, Be Real, but I worked through that iffy time sans self-help literature and hope never to return. Out.

What about Roberton Davies’ The Deptford Trilogy?  I got lost in it for a couple of blissful weeks in the early nineties, but if I want to re-inhabit a guilty community, I’d rather go home to Middlemarch. I kept all the old Penguins.  They don’t take up much space.

I hung on to everything I owned of Miriam Toews, Jim Crace, Barry Unsworth, James Lasdun, and Virginia Woolf, boxed up Anne Tyler and Margaret Drabble (all but The Needle’s Eye).

I moved all the poetry into my office but kept only the unread biographies.

I expected to get rid of the Christian theology--James Allison, John Dominic Crossan, Gustavo Gutierrez—but in the end I kept most of it.  I may never read those authors again, but they belong to a part of my life when I knew a few things for sure, and I don’t want to forget what that felt like.

The philosophy books went, except for Schopenhauer. Did I ever believe I was going to read Heidegger’s Being and Time?  

I hauled seven bags of books to Henderson’s in downtown Bellingham, and the buyer took only two bags. I asked for trade instead of cash--$120—but on the way home I wondered if that made sense.  I have maybe thirty boxes left to dispose of.  Do I want hundreds and hundreds of dollars in trade? What will I do with that except pile up more books?  I think I’ll sell as many as I can and donate the rest to the library. Maybe I’ll donate the money, too.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Stripping My Bookshelves

I own too many books.  Bookshelves line three walls of our extra room, each shelf stacked two books deep. In the closet off the fourth wall books are piled waist high.  Down the hall in my office, every surface except the floor is covered, and the floor is going fast. I try to keep library books downstairs in the living room.  If I bring them up here, I might never see them again.

My son gave me a Kindle for Christmas. I haven’t used it. It would solve my bedtime reading problems—no glare, light-weight—and my storage problems as well, but all my life, and I really mean all my life, I’ve been holding books in my hands.  Books and babies—hand me either one and I know what to do.

I buy books from Amazon and used-book sites and independent bookstores. I get rid of books, too, in fits and starts, racking up credit in two fine used book stores downtown, where I return frequently to get more books.

I write in books, and that’s a problem. I highlight, underline, make notes in the margins, write questions on the flyleaves and lists of more books to read on the endpapers. Used book stores won’t take books that have been marked up. And if it’s a book I felt moved to write in, I usually don’t want to trade it anyway.  

For the past year or two, while I’m reading a book I like, I’m restless until another book by the same author is on the way. That is, the good book in my hands isn’t enough. I comb Suggested Reading lists and sometimes footnotes for titles the author I’m reading used as source material. I’m halfway through John Gray’s Straw Dogs right now, and the list of books it’s suggesting is a little scary—for example, Schopenhauer. I’ve been circling around Schopenhauer for some time, coming closest to picking him up after reading Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. I need a really good reason, however, to enter the mind of an author who was, among other things, a famous misogynist. John Gray might be a good enough reason to read Schopenhauer.

Buying books has become one of my revolving addictions. I get rid of one addiction, and another one crops up—sort of like books. I’ve been hesitating for a long time to tackle this particular vice because (1) it's made me who I am, and (2) what follows might be worse.  But I’m convinced now, late in the game, that the second-half-of-life project for us baby boomers must be to get rid of most of the stuff we’ve accumulated and go willingly into the stripped-down world our accumulation has caused. It's just around the corner. 

So books.  I need a culling strategy.  

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bellingham and The Third Man

It’s still raining off and on in Bellingham. My lettuce is doing great, but I’m losing patience. It doesn’t help that we had a truly glorious day last week, bright sun, light breeze, nearly 70 degrees. All that day I thought, Sun, here I am, shine your mercies on me.

The following day it rained really hard, January hard, and on the way into town to do errands, I passed what I’m pretty sure was a homeless person walking his bike, getting soaked to the skin, holding tight to a paper cup of something that was spilling over the rim, and shouting some awful stuff.  Unbridled anger always scares me, but what rattled me even more was my suspicion that the man was not going home to a hot shower and meal, that he would be wet all day and maybe all night, that the next day would be much the same, and that none of this was a recipe for good judgment. 

My first errand that rainy day involved finding a copy of Graham Greene’s screenplay for The Third Man, which I was showing that night to my research paper class—justifying a break in the march through our textbook by assigning some dialogue paraphrase and a plot summary.  I parked outside a used bookstore and forgot to lock the car.  When I came out of the store, book in hand, I saw another soaked homeless person, a woman this time, climb out of my car’s back seat, glance at me and walk fast into an alley. I ran to the car to see if anything had been stolen, but only library books were on offer, and they were still lying on the floor. The car was full of cigarette smoke, and the dog blanket in the back seat had a big wet spot on it, but otherwise, no harm done.

Unlike the anger in the bicycle man’s voice, this tiny non-event didn’t scare me, but it did surprise me. Downtown Bellingham’s homeless, I remember thinking during my first few weeks in town, were the cheeriest I’d ever seen—out and about, meeting and greeting on the corner of Magnolia and Railroad, using whatever resources were available  to stay energetic and, I guessed from a distance, reasonably healthy. I may have been wrong then, but it’s obvious that whatever shape they were in four years ago, life is harder now.

I’ve noticed some other things, too, like young men in alleys checking out back doors. My friend’s purse sat in the window of a coffee house yesterday, and a man passing by took a long look at it. Everyone I know is feeling pinched. If my husband and I are looking for money to help our kids, others aren’t eating today, aren’t getting treated for pneumonia today, don’t have a coat to keep the rain off today. Is cutting resources to people who are already losing hope in our interest? Where is the trade-off between taxing the rich and arming ourselves against the desperate poor?

The Third Man is about post-World-War-II Vienna, much of it bombed to rubble, the city partitioned among four Allied countries, and the populace rationed, cold, and exhausted. But black marketeer Harry Lime, when we finally meet him in the person of Orson Welles, is doing fine. He’s stealing penicillin from hospitals and selling it, so diluted that it doesn’t work, to the sick. When his longtime friend, Holly Martins, confronts him, they are high up in a Ferris wheel looking down at “dots” boarding a merry-go-round below. 

“Would you ever really feel any pity,” says Lime to Martins, “if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I said you can have twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money—or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man, free of income tax . . . It’s the only way to save nowadays.”

Lime’s diluted penicillin calls to mind our failing safety net, and Lime himself—well, he reminds me of all those who believe that it’s smart to get rich no matter how you do it and dumb to take care of the indigent.  Spoiler alert: the police hunt down Harry Lime.  Pretty soon we aren't going to have many police, and I’m willing to bet that we'll need the ones who are left in our alleys, that they won't have the time or the mandate to arrest the Harry Limes of the world although that's where all the trouble started.

photo by EmilyinChains714, from

There’s a good article on The Nation’s website today about poverty “in the heartland":

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Talking to Myself

5 May 2011. I’m teaching a spring-quarter English class on writing research papers, at a community college on Whidbey Island. It’s a required class, and some students put it off until their last quarter. Nobody likes to cite sources, I guess. Noting the date of a web post and the date you looked at it is one thing. Remembering to abbreviate all months except May, June, and July, and to reverse month and day in the citation are another. Where in the citation do you put the number of volumes in a specialized encyclopedia? Is it necessary to spell out the names of well-known government agencies like the FDA?

Some of this stuff can be memorized, but I have to look a lot of it up again and again, and I suspect my students do, too. Even with grades as a motivator, it’s hard to make the case that the difference between April and Apr. in a citation is an important one. They know that I have to teach this stuff, and they have to learn it, but none of us is excited about it. I’m emphasizing other skills: pulling together information without plagiarizing, making sense of it, considering your own experience, writing something new and valuable.

Once I read that Sophia Loren believes that people won’t see you as old if you don’t make an old woman’s mistakes, namely, farting in public and talking to yourself. How do I cite this? I can’t find it on the web. Do I really need to go to the library and comb through biographies?

I’ll worry about that later. Meanwhile, I'll make notes for a future paper entitled “Signs of Aging or Just Living?”

Farting: it does get harder with every passing year to prevent untimely outbursts. Can't argue with that. I don't remember Loren giving any tips about how to avoid doing this in public. Stay home?

But talking to myself? I’ve always done that:

·      When I’m weeding and lift my head into a rosebush.

·      When I’m watching television and someone says, “Don’t try it, dirtbag.”

·      When I’m in the kitchen getting dinner and can’t find the mozzarella I’m sure I bought at the grocery store, or any of the slotted serving spoons.

·      Does talking to cats count?

·      During every State of the Union speech when GWB was president.

·      When I’m doing work that’s mind-numbingly boring, like ironing. I complain.

·      Answering questions on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.

·      When the kids were home, and the pair of scissors with my name on it wasn’t in the kitchen drawer.

·      Does singing count?

·      When I’m doing something strenuous, like climbing multiple flights of stairs.

·      In tight spots—thinking out loud, praying.

·      When my feelings are hurt.

One of the things I’m supposed to teach in “The Research Paper” is how to evaluate the quality of a website, given that on the Internet anyone can hold forth about anything. Look for documents, I tell my students, that list authors, have been recently updated, are sponsored by nonprofit rather than commercial enterprises, cite sources, and so on.

Just now I googled “talking to yourself,” and right away I found a clearly sensible remark by one Robinson: “Scientists advocate talking to yourself, believing it to be perfectly normal as well as having phenomenal emotional benefits.”

“Robinson”—no first name, but is that important?—does not bring up the issue of aging at all: “Children also stand to gain by speaking to themselves” (2009). 

Work Cited 

Robinson. “Talking to Yourself: Is It Normal?” HealthMad. 18 Oct. 2009. Web. 4 May 2011.