Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Year-End Summery!

As 2009 winds down, things are looking very summery in the fiction and nonfiction-writing career of yours truly. To wit: I've had a political essay accepted for publication by the online journal The Fear of Monkeys, a memoir accepted by the online journal Quicksilver, a very short story (950 words, which I guess some would call flash fiction, but it's more a postmodern parody or pastiche) accepted by the online journal Writers' Bloc, and, last but far from least, a science fiction story accepted, pending further editorial review, by a print journal to be named later. I'll be posting these miscellaneous works to the blog as soon as they appear, but for now, I just wanted to announce their impending arrival.

Whew! It seems that in the publishing business, it never rains but it pours.

Also: this cracks me up, but the editor of forwarded a message from a teacher who found "Positioning" online and was interested in using it in her classes. I'm not sure whether she's intrigued by the subject, the style, the sentiments--or, frankly, whether she wants to use it as an example of how not to write an essay! But whatever the case, this fortuitous first reminds me of the virtues of online publishing: you never know when, where, or why something of yours might be read and put to use.

So in my current upbeat mood, I'd like to end 2009, my first year of blogging and only my second of creative publishing, with a link to one of my favorite stories, "An Interview with Mr. Gance," which appeared earlier this year in the journal Gander Press Review. It took a long time to find a publisher for this one--you'll see why when you read it--but I personally think it's one of the most memorable, meaningful, and in an odd way moving stories I've written. You can read it online or order a hard copy (which would be nice, since it supports the publisher). Either way, I hope you enjoy it.

Have a great new year, and see you in 2010!


Thursday, December 17, 2009

We Were Warmed

My parents, God love 'em, never throw anything away. Usually this is a source of consternation and physical inconvenience--as when one tries to maneuver around the tottering piles of years-old newspapers that litter their home--but occasionally it can be a source of revelation, a recovery from a buried personal archaeology. That's what happened yesterday.

I was searching for their old copy of The Night before Christmas, the book my dad used to read to us every Christmas Eve. I figured the original, if it was there at all, would be in too shabby a shape to risk reading, but I thought I might find the same edition on Amazon or Ebay to read to my own children. What I found instead, among the moldering, masking-taped series of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries that crowd their attic bookcase, was a book from 1974, when I was nine, a book titled Dar Tellum: Stranger from a Distant Planet. It's the kind of book my almost-eleven-year-old daughter still likes to read between mammoth chunks of her favorite fantasies, Harry Potter and Percy Jackson: a chapter book, yes, but with large print, pictures on every third or fourth page, and only sixty-four pages total. So I snatched it--one less piece of junk for my parents to deal with, one less for me to deal with once they're gone--and took it home.

That's when I discovered a certain eerie appropriateness in my choice. I'd remembered the book's basic plot as soon as I saw it: a lonely boy begins to receive telepathic communications from an intergalactic being, Dar Tellum, with whom he forms a friendship. What I hadn't remembered, though, was the plot's principal conflict. Here's how the protagonist/narrator tells it:

"It seems that the planet Earth was right in the middle of a big crisis. Dozens of cities were in danger of becoming flooded. . . . And the reason for this flooding was that the oceans were getting higher.

"From what I understood, and I'm sure there are gaps here and there, the smoke from cars and factories goes into the air. A part of this smoke called carbon dioxide gets into the atmosphere of Earth. It lets the sun's heat in, but it won't let much heat out. This carbon dioxide makes a kind of one-way lid on Earth. Heat in, but not much out.

"And this extra heat was warming up the north and south poles. So the ice was melting and the oceans were getting higher."

How could I have forgotten my introduction (in 1974, mind you) to global warming? Was the idea so scary I wanted to forget? Or--and this is another way of asking the same question--did the concept seem so preposterous, even more unbelievable than telepathic communication with interstellar strangers, that I'd easily dismissed it? To put it succinctly: was I, at age nine, a climate skeptic?

I suppose I was. And I suppose, at age nine, I was entitled to be. But now here we are, with a third of a century behind us, a third of a century filled with warnings from aliens and earthlings alike, and collectively, we as a society are still nine years old. Still wishing it gone, stashing it in our parents' bookshelves, forgetting it, treating it as fantasy rather than fact. Still, to cite the final words of a grown-up book, Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes from a Catastrophe, waiting for someone else (Dar Tellum?) to magically make it go away:

"All of the studies and news stories were there for everyone to read. But the storm of the future lay in the future, while the costs of preparing for it would have had to be borne in the present. It was easier, both psychically and economically, to turn away from the facts. And so life went on as before, and everyone hoped for the best."

Kolbert is talking specifically about Hurricane Katrina, finding in our non-response to the warnings that loomed over that doomed city an apt analogy to our non-response to the larger issue of global warming. Had she read Dar Tellum, she might have seen the warnings there too: smoke from factories and cars, warming poles, rising oceans, drowned cities. The stories were there for everyone to read.

But we'd rather hear a different story.

The tagline to the blockbuster movie 2012 reads: "We Were Warned." That what we were warned about is at once quasi-mystical (the end of the Mayan calendar), completely unrelated to the excesses of industrial civilization, and, as it happens, a result of the modern-day climate skeptics' favorite hobby-horse (solar flares) suggests that this movie's outrageous popularity owes at least something to its ability to preserve us blameless, childlike, without sin. In denial. Still preferring to tell ourselves a different story. Still forgetting that one book in our parents' attics that, years ago, might have told us the truth.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Confessions of a Global Warming Warrior

I just realized it's been nearly three weeks since my last post--the delay attributable to paper-grading--but I thought I'd try to slip something in here before the final, end-of-term crush. I did a rough calculation on how many pages of student papers I read in a term, and it came out to something like 3,000 pages. Fortunately, I grade everything online, so at least I'm sparing the trees.

But speaking of environmental issues, I've been doing some soul-searching lately, and I thought I'd share it here. This seems like a good time. As the Copenhagen conference dawns, as the EPA rules that CO2 and other greenhouse gases are hazardous to human health, as the U.S. Congress lurches toward some kind of climate legislation, it seems like time to confess that I've been rethinking my position on global warming.

Relax. I still think it's real, I still think industrial civilization is driving it, and I still think it's likely to have catastrophic results. (Indeed, a number of recent studies, including this one, suggest that it's going to be a lot worse than anyone dreamed.) But my position on global warming, I've concluded, hasn't been entirely rational or realistic over the several years I've been trying to do my part to address the problem.

What I realized, in short, is that I'm not going to be the one to solve the problem. That may sound silly--what, did I think I was going to personally monkeywrench every coal-fired power plant in the developed world?--but what I mean is, I've come to the conclusion that my generation, people in the middle of their lives, are not ultimately going to be the ones to reverse the trend. At most, we'll be the ones who raised the alarm, who raised the public conscience or consciousness, but not the ones who will raise the new structure our world is going to need to get out of its self-inflicted mess.

The issue, as I see it, is this: people don't make big changes in preferred systems until things get REALLY bad. And for most of us in the industrial West, things aren't going to get really bad until mid-century, when people like me are either dead or in serious decline. What this means is that for my generation, the window for making the changes we need to make is both too short and too long: too short because these changes will need to be made quickly to stave off what will come if we don't make them, too long because we won't start to see the problems our changes could have averted until we're largely too decrepit to do anything about them. So we'll chip away at things here, screw in compact fluorescents there, pass a half-assed climate bill tomorrow (or the next day, or the next year, or the next decade), and pretty much keep on with business as usual until, one day, things get so bad that someone realizes they simply have to act.

Who that someone will be, I'm not totally sure. The key question will be: for whom has it gotten so bad that decisive action is no longer avoidable? For my children, maybe. For my children's children, almost certainly. I both hope and fear it will be for my children: hope, because the longer it goes on this way, the harder it will be to set right, and fear, because they are my children, and I don't want the things I (we) have done to harm them. But either way, my feeling at this point is that those of us who could do something to prevent such harm right now probably won't.

This may sound utterly pessimistic. Or it may sound like a cop-out, a way of absolving myself of any responsibility to act. Trust me, it's not. I will continue to act in every way I can (and I've been acting in plenty of ways), and I will contine to seek new ways. What this is, rather, is a realistic appraisal not only of the situation but of myself: a recognition that, deep down, I really wanted to be the one to fix things, not only because then they'd be fixed but because then I'd have been the one who did it. I wanted to be a member of the Greatest Generation; I wanted to save the world. I wanted to be remembered that way.

And maybe that's a dangerous desire. Maybe it's better to realize you can't save the world until it's ready to save itself, at which time it'll no longer need you to save it. It's funny: I got involved in this issue because I wanted to secure my children's future. But maybe, as with one's children, one has to resist the temptation to do it all for them--resist, that is, the temptation to do it before they've stepped into a future in which they're ready to do it themselves.

So you'll still see me at the rallies and on the boards of local organizations, you'll still read my letters (at least, if you're my representative), you'll still watch An Inconvenient Truth (if you're my student), you'll still know I'm around. But you won't have me to thank when the problem is finally solved.