Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Descent of Winter: 9/30

Hendrik Willem Mesdag, Hooge Zee; Waves

There are no perfect waves——
Your writings are a sea
full of misspellings and
faulty sentences. Level. Troubled.

A center distant from the land
touched by the wings
of nearly silent birds
that never seem to rest——

This is the sadness of the sea——
waves like words, all broken——
a sameness of lifting and falling mood.

I lean watching the detail
of brittle crest, the delicate
imperfect foam, yellow weed
one piece like another——

There is no hope——if not a coral
island slowly forming
to wait for birds to drop
the seeds to make it habitable.



Monday, September 29, 2014

The Descent of Winter: 9/29

My bed is narrow
in a small room
at sea

The numbers are on
the wall
Arabic 1

Berth No. 2
was empty above me
the steward

took it apart
and removed

only the number

on an oval disc
of celluloid

to the white-enameled

two bright nails
like stars

the moon



Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Descent of Winter: 9/27

Pablo Picasso

"What are these elations I have
at my own underwear?

I touch it and it is strange
upon a strange thigh."

*     *     *



The Descent of Winter

As I passingly mentioned in an earlier post, over the next couple of months I'll be sequentially posting the entries from William Carlos Williams' diaristic experiment The Descent of Winter, which was composed in autumn of 1927 and published a year later in Exile, Ezra Pound's literary magazine. It's a strange, uneven, often mundane, sometimes sublime sequence of prose and lyric pieces,
and I think it would be fun to follow it along as we in 2014 take another slide down the same seasonal declivity.

Hope you enjoy!

Friday, September 26, 2014

Three Insects I've Met

Genus Tibicen

"Sorry about that," I told Hannah. "I was holding the receiver to his butt, but it seems to have made him a little shy."

I was speaking to her over the phone outside of a laundromat in Silver Spring, Maryland. "He" was a cicada sitting in the middle of the parking lot. Seconds earlier he'd burst out in song, even though it was maybe ten o'clock at night—a warm night, and in the sodium vapor high noon of the parking lot, it's understandable that the fellow's cicadian rhythm might have been somewhat phase shifted.

(Cicadian rhythm. See what I did there?)

(Pausing for laughter.)

(I've got all night. I can wait.)

I hope I can be allowed some clemency for my misapprehension of the source of a cicada's noise. I knew that they don't produce their sounds with their legs (stridulating), and I knew that the the operative organs (the tymbals) were located in the abdomen, but they're actually on the sides of the abdomen rather than the posterior. (No wonder the guy was suddenly so bashful.)

Actually, what's real interesting about the tymbal is that while they do initiate the call, the resonated clicks are actually projected outwards via the tympana—the cicada's "ears," located a little further down and back on the abdomen. I found a fascinating but very technical paper on the subject that really makes me want to take a course in acoustics.

I'm gonna miss these guys. I always wish they'd stick around for longer than two or three months.

Mantis religiosa(?)

Another fellow I found in the parking lot at the laundromat. Maybe it's a female? Who knows?

It's hard not to be intimidated by praying mantises, or by any other creature that bears itself with such an imperturbably pugilistic swagger. Every time I approach one, it takes a stance and seems to size me up, and I can't help fancying that it's thinking yeah, I could totally take this guy. Even though I'm probably at least a few hundred times more massive, I have to wonder if it isn't right.

It's not clear in the image, but this specimen had a bum forelimb—a big chunk was missing from it, and all that remained was the "bone," if we can call it that. She probably didn't have long to live; full-grown insects can't really regenerate damaged limbs. I figured my new acquaintance would prefer that this passage of her final chapter consist as little as possible of being harassed by some pushy mammal, so I left her alone after I noticed the state he was in. (According to some of the literature on bugs, it seems that mantises' eyes turn black when they're malnourished—this one must have been well along on its way out.)

One of the tragedies of being human, I think, is our possessing the capacity (and indeed the inclination) to experience curiosity and empathy toward other living things that are incapable of reciprocation. If I'm not prey, if I'm not a mate, and if I'm not a threat, I must be just some extraneous feature of her environment to be regarded with a mixture of avoidance and indifference. I'm looking for some sort of meaningful correspondence with creatures foreign to my being; the creatures have no use for nor interest in me. I reckon it's a lot like following a celebrity on Twitter or in the tabloids: the object of your fascination has no awareness of the essential you, and it has no reason to care, being who/what it is.

If he were capable of wishing, she'd be wishing I'd let him be.

Unless one lives as a part of nature—steps forward from observation and into the fray of seeking, feeding, and fending for oneself in the open, unanthropized spaces—nature can be an impenetrable and aloof acquaintance.

There are times when a loincloth and a sharpened stick take on an undeniable appeal.

Family Acrididae

A few years ago I was weeding a flowerbed at my folks' place and found a maple sapling. It was a weed where it was and had to be pulled out, but it had managed to grow to about six inches and I thought it would be a waste to just uproot it and toss it away.

When we moved into the house in 1987 (from Maryland, incidentally), at least a dozen trees grew in the backyard. Then came the blight, and after twenty years or so, only four remained. So I planted the sapling, bringing the number up to five.

Whenever I was in town, I cared for it as best I could, pulling weeds out from around its stem, pruning broken branches, watering it during dry periods, flicking away Japanese beetles, and so forth. It's really miraculous that it survived, what with so many dogs with so many bladders hanging around the place.

When I visited the neighborhood last spring, the tree had grown to about my height—just under six feet. When I stopped by last week, it had shot up to eight or nine feet. Would it be silly to say I'm proud of it? Is it ridiculous to love a tree? (Probably, but would be totally consonant with my character. I'd be the last to allege that I'm anything but ridiculous.)

I found this grasshopper clinging to it last week. Doubtless he intended to make a meal of its leaves and I should have brushed it off—but I've got a soft spot for stridulators, and the tree has proven itself as a survivor. It will last longer than the grasshopper, anyhow.

Happy Autumn, incidentally.

Monday, September 22, 2014


People's Climate March, author's view

Since I was already in the neighborhood, I swung by Manhattan this afternoon to walk in the People's Climate March. Having proclaimed for so long and with such incessancy that climate change is going to be the defining problem of this generation (and of the twenty-first century), I would have been remiss in not making an appearance.

Chris and I slipped into the crowd at 65th Street and Central Park West. We weren't completely sure about the the location of the route, but it wasn't hard to find: we just followed the rumble of the NYPD helicopter hovering above the multitude.

They're saying that something like 400,000 people showed up—about four times as many as the organizers predicted. "This was the largest political gathering about anything in the US in a very very long time," environmentalist guru Bill McKibben tweeted earlier tonight. "About anything!"

The mood was overwhelmingly one of boisterous fellowship and hope. It's a big problem—but look at us! We're a big crowd. We can solve this. We can dial it back. The oceans don't have to rise, the crops don't have to fail, the polar bears don't have to drown . . .

What a crowd it was. We saw hippies, college kids, elementary school students, clowns, dancers, guitar strummers, drummers, buglers, Buddhists, Quakers, middle-aged parents pushing their kids along in strollers, octogenarians pushing themselves along on walkers, amateur and professional documentarians of all stripes, every shade of actor on the activist spectrum and their assembled converts, medical students arguing that climate change is a health problem, horticulturists arguing that it's a food supply problem, Christians arguing that it's a moral problem, Occupy veterans chanting TELL ME WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE, international contingents from India and the Dominican Republic, hipsters, goths, performance artists, every kind of anti-capitalist distributing every kind of leaflet . . . . . and these were just the people that Chris and I happened to pass along the way.

It was a great turnout.

When I arrived back at my folks' place in Jersey, my stepfather asked if the march had been a success.

It was a great turnout, I said. It was all there was to be said. It's still six months, five years, two decade, a century too early to say we've succeeded at anything. A march is a means to an end. Today's event might be half a step's shuffle in the right direction, but there is still an unbelievable amount of work to be done.

*          *          *          *

I thought things over on the train ride back to Jersey. I've concluded that within the climate change debate, those who aren't deniers generally fall into four basic categories.

1.) The Nihilists. These are the people who understand that the carbon problem, if left unsolved for much longer, will have dire repercussions for human civilization and the biosphere, but either [A] don't really give a shit, or try not to think about it [B] believe that the measures required to significantly and helpfully curb carbon emissions have no chance of ever being instituted, so fuck it all, leave the lights on in the house and leave the car running in the driveway, don't sweat it [C] are convinced that civilization is beyond repair and want to see it flooded, starved, and browned out so something better can be built up from its ruins.

We are all lying to ourselves if we claimed that propositions [B] and [C] don't strike a resonant note in some tenebrous chambers of our secret hearts. Ensuring a livable future requires us to ignore it.

2.) The Optimists. JOBS. JUSTICE. CLEAN ENERGY. That was one of the demonstration's official slogans. The phrase CLIMATE JUSTICE, often by itself, could be read on hundreds of placards and heard in hundreds of chants.

These are nice sentiments. But sentiments are all they are.

What are these jobs and where will they come from? What kind of clean energy are we talking about? How will the infrastructure be built, who will construct it, how much will it cost, and who will pay for it? And what does "climate justice" actually mean? Is it self-explanatory?

I'd hate to think that my brothers and sisters in Generation Y who voted for Obama in enthusiastic droves are still credulous enough to put their faith in slogans, saviors, and simple solutions as nostrums for the world's problems.

I would also hate to think that the majority of the people at the march believe that this is going to be an easy fix; that we won't be put in the position of having to select the least unpalatable choice from a plate of bitter options and making a lot of sacrifices across the whole board.

"For human nature is strange," Bolesław Prus wrote; "the less we are inclined to self-sacrifice, the more we insist on it in others."

We have to be better than that. If the nations, politicians, businesses, and masses of citizens aren't shoving past each other to be first in line to propose solutions and make concessions, then we're all wasting our time.

Showing up at a demonstration, waving around signs and chanting slogans demonstrate willingness, and that's wonderful. But if we're hoping to compel change from the top without exerting ourselves to meet it (or pull it down) from the bottom, we can expect lackluster results.

3.) The Pragmatists. Broadly speaking, this is the contingent that believes something must be done and is willing to invest and advocate, but are also willing to aim towards what is realistically accomplishable. One specimen of this group is the person who suggests we need to put just as much (if not more) resources towards preparing to mitigate the effects of rising sea levels and more powerful storms as working to stymie their onset.

A particularly interesting subset of this group are the controversial pro-nuclear environmentalists, of which I am a member. I have to support nuclear power because it's the best out of several bad options. The risk of an occasional Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island, or Fukushima is an acceptable alternative to the inevitable and widespread ecological catastrophe we're inviting by continuing to rely on coal power plants.

The pro-nuclear environmentalist concedes that it's unrealistic to expect the United States to willingly curtail its energy consumption. So if we're going to insist on using as much (if not more) electricity tomorrow as we are today, we can either continue to rely on coal (unacceptable) or switch to nuclear plants. Solar and wind have a part to play, certainly, but as supplemental sources—even taken together, they're not up to the task of matching the output of coal or nuclear plants.

During the march I spotted several people waving DON'T NUKE THE PLANET SIGNS. This is troubling. So is Bill McKibben's virulent anti-nuclear stance. Nevermind that fission plants generate energy much more cleanly and efficiently than fossil fuels; we don't want any.

I sense that this divide is going to vitiate the climate movement in the days to come.

4.) The Idealists. These are the people who demand that drastic action be taken. We spotted one woman with a sign demanding an "Auto-Free New York." Vegans and PETA advocates brandished huge signs and shouted over megaphones about how a meat-eating environmentalist is a pseuedo-environmentalist. One gentleman handed out literature claiming that the solution to the problem was a return to village life by establishing self-sustaining agricultural communities. More than one person carried more than one sign affirming the moral imperative of achieving zero human population growth.

They are unreasonable. They're also right. And if we find their demands impossible, then we'll likely find the climate problem intractable.

James and I don't entirely agree on this front. He envisions the solution coming from the top-down, primarily through legislation, carbon taxes, subsidies, etc. I agree that all of these things will be helpful, but if we want the problem to really go away, a few billion people have to opt to change their lifestyles. Want to cut emissions from coal-burning power stations? Get a few tens or hundreds of millions of people to consume 50% less electricity in their homes and demand that businesses do the same, even if it means cutting back on the kinds of conveniences we've come to expect. Want to reduce auto emissions? Stop driving. Shop at places selling goods that didn't have to be shipped in from across the country. Buy less or none of anything that wasn't grown or manufactured less than fifty miles away. Buy less of everything. Take the train instead of flying. Don't travel at all. Move out of the suburbs and into a city. Share a living space with multiple people. If it needs to be plugged in, use less of it. Grow as much of your own food as possible. If you insist on raising a child, opt for adoption. Et cetera. Et cetera.

Saying we want change means nothing if we're not willing to take some initiative.

I can't help but look at modern humanity, at this moment, as a cigarette smoker who keeps saying he wants to quit, who needs to quit, but keeps finding a reason to continue lighting up. Habits are hard to break and lifestyles are hard to change. But a solution to the carbon problem will require as many personal concessions as policy changes.

For my part, I'm going to make another serious attempt to altogether cut meat out of my diet and try to eat at least a few totally vegan meals a week. I'm also going to start walking to work (since my new digs will permit such a thing) and make a serious attempt to go at least three days a week without driving anywhere at all.

These are small things, but I'd like to imagine that an accretion of small things can make a big difference.

Pragmatism informed by idealism and idealism tempered by pragmatism. Be realistic, be sensible, but dream big enough to broaden your conception of what is possible. That's my takeaway from the march, I suppose: mitigating climate change and the dangers it promises will require the full use of our ingenuity and imaginative faculties, a willingness for shared sacrifice, and the clarity of thought and conviction to realize that it all depends on us.

It would really sting if human intelligence and technology ultimately proved to be evolutionary and cultural dead ends.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Equinox #31

In 1928, William Carlos Williams (a favorite of mine, whom we've looked at again and again) had a long piece called The Descent of Winter published by Ezra Pound in The Exile. The Descent of Winter is partially a diary and partially a collection of poems and short prose pieces, thirty-nine and all, composed and date-stamped in the days between September 27 and December 18. I'll be posting the whole piece entry by entry on the dates on which they were composed in 1927. You might like to think of this as an advance payment in case another National Poetry Month extravaganza isn't in the cards for 2015.

This time last year, "in his late twenties" became a qualifier that no longer applied to me. Today, "in his early thirties" becomes one I can no longer deny.

On Monday I leave on a visit to the tropics. Sometime next week, difficult choices will have to be made. For the moment I'm back in Jersey, getting ready to meet up with some friends for an early autumn ritual we've carried on for the better part of the last decade.

Around this time five years ago I finished the first draft of The Zeroes. Coming back "home" not only reminds me of my own seminal years here, but also of the phantom life I recorded in the novel. (Listening to Catch 22 as I took the final exit off the Interstate likely influenced this.)

You can go home, but it's never quite the home you remember. The less often you visit, the more salient the accretions of slow-time transformations. The shopping center is suddenly abandoned. The houses are deserted, the houses are dilapidated, the houses are torn down. One vacant lot becomes a convenience store and another becomes a meadow. The diner you used to meet your friends at is where it always was. New people have moved into the houses on your block after the old residents moved away or died of cancer. They're not the houses you remember.


Five years since I finished the first draft of The Zeroes. Four years since I began keeping this blog. A little more than eleven years since I threw together a little comic strip about video games; a little less than six since I hung it up. Eight years since I started writing a series of interminable writeups about a Japanese RPG series called Final Fantasy.

All of it was pretty much just for fun.

Now I'm mostly writing fiction that nobody reads. I'm pretty sure it's still fun. It must be.

Five years ago: I sat by myself at a campfire, coming down from a psychedelic experience and looking up at the autumn stars—Cassiopeia, Perseus, Auriga, the Pleiades, Taurus—and made up my mind to give the skies my more deliberate attention from then on.

At the beginning of the month I invested in a vaporizer. It was a nice little compromise to a longstanding problem: continuing to smoke cigarettes is untenable, quitting is unacceptable. I'm sure that vaping can't be great for me—but breathing in nicotine-infused water vapor must be less damaging than filling the lungs with the hot particulates and gasses of combusted leaves, and so far it hasn't left me feeling like crap in the morning.

But I saved the remains of my last pack of American Spirits. Tonight I stopped at a Dunkin Donuts on the main drag and smoked a cigarette in the parking lot, by the dumpster. Oh, Jersey. Ah, suburbs. Return to an familiar place, relish in familiar routines. It was an admixture of nostalgia and relief. Oh god I missed this; oh thank god I moved on.

As I was just about down to the filter I started dry heaving. Guess there's a good reason I'm trying not to do this anymore.

The other night I skimmed the LiveJournal I kept between the ages of sixteen and twenty. Fifteen and eleven years ago. It was uncanny, reading the candid thoughts of a version of myself who is at once eminently familiar and startlingly strange.

Uncanny. That's what this time of the year is for me. My birthday falls just a few days before the autumnal equinox. The tilting point between summer and winter. The cycles themselves are immutable (as far as the human lifespan is concerned), but the world is never the same as it was. Time makes us all strangers.

Yesterday, in Maryland: there was a dog leashed to the trunk of a tree outside of the rock gym. A black lab. Before heading inside I sat beside him a while and scratched his ears while listening to the cicadas. (They won't be tymballing for much longer.) His appearance and mild temperament reminded me of Phoebe, my family's late black lab, and of how much I still miss her. Phoebe was a sweet pooch, but pensive and even melancholy. She often accompanied me in my rambles through the woods, and these were the only times I ever saw her demonstratively happy. Everywhere else in the world, she was out of her element. In the quiet, open places she seemed to remember what she was supposed to be.

I guess each of us knew how the other felt.

Getting chilly at night. Won't be able to step out in sandals much longer. These evenings ask for sweatshirts. Winter is only a few months away; I'll have to dig my heavy coat out of the closet. And then spring will blossom, and I'll take off the coat and then the sweatshirt, and then summer will settle in again and I'll put the sandals back on. And then it'll be September and here we'll be again, a little less of who we are now and a little more of someone else. And winter will descend once more.

Oh! my friends, but this is man-killing! Yet this is life.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Accidents and Imperatives

Leslie Thornton

For some reason I visited a 7-Eleven yesterday. On my way out I glanced at the newspaper rack and noticed a story on the front page of the Washington Post: CO2 levels in atmosphere rising at dramatically faster rate, U.N. report warns. Excerpt from the online version:

The WMO’s data for 2013 shows the global average level of atmospheric carbon at just under 400 parts per million, about 40 percent higher than in ­pre-industrial times and higher than in any other period in at least 800,000 years. The symbolically important threshold of 400 parts per million — described by scientists as the level at which more dramatic climactic impacts become likely — will probably be crossed in the next two years, the report said.

“It’s the level that climate scientists have identified as the beginning of the danger zone,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton University professor of geosciences who was not involved in the WMO report. “It means we’re probably getting to the point where we’re looking at the ‘safe zone’ in the rearview mirror, even as we’re stepping on the gas.”

A landmark report last year by a U.N.-appointed panel of climate scientists warned that, if current trends continue, the world could soon see major disruptions to both natural ecosystems and human civilization, including rising sea levels that could swamp many of the world’s coastal cities. That report, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, projected a rise in temperatures of up to nine degrees in the next century unless action is taken to lower carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

Below this was a story about the effects of climate change on birds in the United States:

By the turn of the century, global warming will threaten the survival of more than half of all species of birds in the United States and Canada, a new report says.

Warming temperatures will dramatically alter the habitat ranges of birds in nearly every state, including Baltimore orioles and eagles in the Washington, D.C., region, forcing them to migrate to unfamiliar areas where they will have to adapt quickly or possibly perish, the study published by the National Audubon Society says.

Of the 588 species studied, 126 species will experience severe declines as soon as 2050, as half of their range, the sprawling areas they inhabit in summer and winter, becomes unsuitable because of increased dryness caused by warming.

A few hours later I ended up at a café in DTSS (that's how the DC youngsters refer to downtown Silver Spring) because I guess I didn't want to go home. I just would have gone back to bed. I felt languid with pessimism. So instead I got a cup of coffee and sat down at a table to look over the beginning of a new short story and tried to persuade myself that it wasn't all futile, that maybe civilization would come to its senses and the beautiful things I love in this world wouldn't necessarily disappear during my lifetime.

We heard a sharp, piercing screech outside. I didn't look up until after the BANG shook the air a moment later.

About ten of us got up from our lattes and laptops and shuffled curiously out onto the patio. Near the intersection a little ways down the street sat a car with a smashed-in anterior; smoke rose from beneath the crumpled hood and seemed to be seeping into the interior. The windows were up. We couldn't see inside.

"Damn," we said. "Holy shit."

Some of us were taking pictures or videos. I noticed a kid tweeting about it.

"Should we call 911?" the man standing beside me at the railing asked nobody in particular. He studied the digital keypad on his phone screen as though the sight of it puzzled him.

"I guess so," I answered torpidly.

He didn't need to call. Police cruisers were already converging on the scene. An officer approached the battered car and opened the door. A tall, lanky old man sat in the driver's seat. We were too far away to see his face clearly, but he was conscious, and visibly, spastically shaking all over. He had to be unbuckled and helped out of the car, and then escorted to the sidewalk.

"That's it," one of us remarked. "He just too old."

A barista had stepped out onto the patio and was cheerfully drawing our attention to the second car—an unoccupied and rather attractive silver convertible with the sun roof down—standing partially in the intersection with a back bumper that looked like a kicked-in piece of paper mache.

I think it might have been the convertible's driver, a middle-aged woman, who sat beside the the quaking old man on the bench and held his hand in hers while the cops controlled traffic, peered at the wrecked cars, and chatted among themselves to kill time before the ambulance and fire trucks rolled up.

It was the middle of rush hour. The equable pedestrians and motorists marched along the crosswalk and drove around the stopped cars, looking the scene over and carrying on as before.

Some of us on the patio kept gawking for a few more minutes. Most of us went back inside to our coffee, spreadsheets, and coursework before too much longer.

I tried to do something. I walked to the gas station between the cafe and the intersection, bought a bottle of water, and offered it to the old man. The woman sitting next to him thanked me. The old man—he was still shaking uncontrollably, but otherwise seemed quite in his right mind—politely declined.

I'm sipping from the bottle now. I guess it was a nice gesture. Maybe my heart was in the right place. But it was too little, too late. Really kind of half-assed, actually.

If the event had really mattered to me, to any of us, we would have come running over from the patio immediately. We wouldn't have stood back and watched at a distance, waiting to see if the person in the driver's seat might get out on his own. For all we knew he could have been bleeding to death, or choking on the fumes filling the car. For all we knew there might have been passengers. Children. It didn't even cross our minds. All we were interested in doing was observing and offering each other our comments. At least two minutes had already passed after the BANG before the man next to me thought aloud about maybe calling 911 to let somebody else know about the possibly injured person or persons in need of help half a block away from where we were standing.

It doesn't bode well for any of us.

If the plain human suffering we see directly in front of us is something so abstract, so emotionally irrelevant to the modern mind that we can hardly be bothered to pull ourselves away from our business and our cozy routines to get involved, what hope is there, how likely is it that we'll do anything to confront the carbon problem before it becomes a global catastrophe?