Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Of Gas and Water

Typically I see about two movies a year, but this year, for reasons unknown, I'm consuming them like nobody's business. Inception. Toy Story 3. The Last Airbender. Shrek 4. Astro Boy. Despicable Me. Needless to say, the majority have been movies I went to with my kids, but still. I must be looking for some of that fantasy I keep telling everybody we've got to avoid.

But the most recent movie I saw, Gasland, is anything but fantasy. It's grim reality, a documentary about the disastrous environmental and human costs of drilling for natural gas in the shale formations that underlie many states, including my home state of Pennsylvania. The natural gas industry's method of extracting the gas, called hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," involves pumping water mixed with various chemicals (the exact composition is a trade secret) under high pressure deep underground, where it breaks up the shale and releases the gas. The resulting toxic waste water is subsequently disposed of in ways that are patently unsafe (and in some cases illegal): left in huge open pits where it seeps into groundwater or evaporates into the air, or discharged back into streams and other waterways. What allows the industry to run roughshod over environmental protections is the infamous "Halliburton exception," pioneered by Dick Cheney during the Bush administration, which exempted natural gas extraction from certain provisions of the Clean Water Act and other environmental regulations. Cheney also masterminded the opening of public lands to natural gas extraction. The end result: millions of gallons of public water contaminated, millions of acres of public lands despoiled, millions of dollars in the pockets of the selfsame companies that brought us such natural wonders as the $4 gallon of gas and the BP oil spill. And all of this in the supposed name of a cleaner-burning, domestic alternative to oil.

Gasland isn't entirely credible at all moments. Its writer/director, Josh Fox, is as much a master of innuendo as Michael Moore; he lets dour expressions, ominous pauses, and jerkily edited interviews suggest far more horrors than the facts he was able to collect appear to warrant. But if even half--heck, one-tenth--the horrors he suggests turn out to be true, this expose of corporate greed, government indifference and collusion, and just plain institutional stupidity is enough to make you weep.

There are movements afoot to place moratoria on fracking until more study of its environmental effects has been conducted, or even, in my hometown (where the industry wants to frack for gas underneath urban neighborhoods), to deny private industries the right to extract resources from public lands. It's a tea-party-like protest with a liberal spin: a refusal to allow Big Business and Big Government to impose liabilities on citizens who were not party to the contract. It's a growing movement, and it has what many environmental movements (including the fight against global warming) lack: local effects, therefore local concern, therefore local activism. If the movement works, it might become a model for those other movements.

If it doesn't, we may all be in deep, deep shit.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Online Oblivion

Well, I knew there had to be a downside to the online publishing that has been my mainstay as I attempted to reignite a creative writing career. And here it is: online journals, being relatively cheap and easy to open, are also apt to close.

I discovered this while trying to track down an old story of mine, "Snooping," which was published in the inaugural issue of the sci-fi zine The Squirrel Cage. Turns out the zine no longer exists. It lasted about a year.

This made me wonder how many of the stories and essays I've published online have now vanished from the web. From what I can tell, 5 of them (out of 17) either have vanished or are likely to soon. Roughly a third, in other words. Here's the litany:

1. My first publication, "Keynote," which appeared in Third Reader. It was archived for a while after the zine's closing, but has since disappeared.

2. My first sci-fi publication, the aforementioned "Snooping." Inaccessible so far as I can tell.

3. My story "Review," which appeared in Writers' Bloc. Archived until next year at least; after that, who knows?

4. My story "String," which appeared in Word Catalyst. Still available for the time being.

5. My story "Princess," which appeared in Dark and Dreary Magazine. Nowhere to be found.

This is compared to 7 print publications during the same period, all of them still going strong.

So, what can I say? There's no such thing as a free lunch, life's tough all over, you can't always get what you want, etc. Print journals aren't foolproof either, of course; they go belly-up too. But my experience suggests that--for the moment at least--they're relatively more stable than the online journals.

So I think I'm going to stick with my decision to focus on print publication for the future. But I'll always be grateful to the online medium for giving me a chance and a start.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Troubled Dreams

As summer winds to a close and the school year looms, I treated myself to a film I'd heard only good things about: Inception. I'm happy to report that the reviewers didn't lie; it's a great film, one of the best sci-fi films I've seen in a while. Maybe not quite Blade Runner or Alien quality, but right up there.

Inception is the kind of science fiction I like best: the kind that wears its science (and its fiction) lightly, with whatever visionary elements it introduces operating in the service of an investigation into what it means to be human. The film takes place in a time that could be our own, with one small but significant exception: a technology (or technique) exists whereby individuals called "extractors" can enter other people's dreams to steal information. The story revolves around the efforts of one extractor, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, to perform a reverse (and, most people believe, impossible) operation: to implant an idea in a dreamer's mind, a process called "inception." I won't go into the details of why or how he does this; suffice it to say that in order to make the implanted idea stick, he and his assistants reason that they have to go deeper into the dreamer's mind than a single layer of dreaming, not only into a dream within a dream but into a dream within a dream within a dream. Needless to say, this leads to some very cool and creepy stuff where the edges of reality and fantasy blur and nothing is quite what it seems.

Inception is full of startling, Matrix-generation visuals, where dream burglars scamper about ceilings and walls and entire cityscapes unfurl from sand and surf. But at its heart, it's not about the mind-blowing images or mind-bending plot but about two of the most basic human emotions: guilt and grief. During an early experiment in the construction of dream-worlds, it turns out, DiCaprio's wife came to doubt the reality of reality, with devastating results--and DiCaprio's character is hounded by the belief that it was he who led her down this path. Thus when he (and we) enter the dream-world, we're entering the world of trauma: a place of frozen time and deadly distortion, a place where early, awful events have produced demons from which the dreamer can neither escape nor awake. To its considerable credit, the film mostly suggests these horrors rather than divulging them; I kept waiting for the monster to pop out of the closet, but it never does. And in that sense, one is left at movie's end with an uneasy feeling akin to the characters': there's no simple resolution, no quick catharsis, just a sinking realization that the real work has yet to be done.

Maybe I saw Inception at just the right time, given my recent thoughts about reality versus fantasy, the actual against the virtual. Maybe I was drawn to it because it resembled some of my own recently published fiction, such as Your Name Here. Or maybe, in the larger sense, I saw it at the right time of life: smack in the middle, when I'm thinking about how my past has shaped my present (and how it will continue to cast its shadow on my future). Whatever the case, I know this film--like a dream--will stick with me for a long time.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Missing the Forest for the Trees

Like a lot of institutions of higher education, the college at which I work has recently expanded its menu of online and web-enhanced courses. The growth of such programs is attributable to many factors, foremost among them the strategy of increasing enrollment while simultaneously lowering instructional costs. With transportation costs rising, student aid shrinking, college budgets swelling, and online institutions such as the University of Phoenix vying for student dollars, traditional schools are finding it in their interest to offer the far more accessible and affordable option of computer-mediated instruction.

I'm not going to enter into the debate over whether these courses provide as good an education as the traditional classroom. To be sure, I refuse to teach them myself, but that's largely because I believe they degrade the teaching profession both tangibly (by encouraging the recruitment of low-paid, part-time faculty labor) and philosophically (by transforming education into yet another product you can buy on the web). I do, however, use our institution's web-based software to provide students with course materials, as well as to read the papers my students write; thus my courses fall into the category of "web-enhanced" (traditional in-classroom courses with web extras). I've adopted this route primarily for its presumed environmental advantages: as someone who reads between 4,000 and 5,000 pages of student work every semester (and who provides students with hundreds of pages of course materials), it seemed obvious to me that I could save trees by placing all these materials and reading all these papers online. At our start-of-semester in-service, our Academic Vice President supported this belief: noting that something like 200 courses on our campus now have a web presence, he singled out the environmental benefits this increase presumably bestows.

But I wonder whether those advantages are really as great as he--and I--would like to believe. Some contrasting evidence would suggest they're not: it takes a lot of energy to power all those servers, after all, and the reduction in paper (and in fossil fuels spent driving to class) might be offset by the raw materials necessary to keep the online courses up and running. More importantly, it may be that online and web-enhanced courses play into the larger problem I believe lies at the root of all our environmental problems: alienation from the physical world, from local landscapes and communities, and the corresponding neglect of or indifference to the degradation of the world around us. Writing during the Depression, Aldo Leopold pondered the challenge of environmental education: "The problem is how to bring about a striving for harmony with land among a people many of whom have forgotten there is any such thing as land, among whom education and culture have become almost synonymous with landlessness." His point was that the educated of his time--the urbanites, the social elite--were precisely the people who had least direct contact with the ultimate sources of their existence: buying their food from grocery stores, living in paved cities, driving to work, these people were either disdainful or simply ignorant of the world around them. Thus education was directly facilitating a social shift away from the land: farmers' children, once educated, were unlikely to return to the farm, and over time the population's connection to the land was apt to become ever more tenuous.

Could it not be that the turn to online education is weakening this connection even more? There is ample evidence of a decline in environmental awareness, knowledge, and commitment among young people, which some writers attribute to the increasing time the current generation spends in front of video screens instead of outdoors. What are the implications of transforming young people's college education into yet another four years of staring at a video screen? How might such an experience solidify their belief that knowledge, prestige, and well-being reside within their laptop instead of the landscape?

At the start of my Environmental Literature class, I ask my students, "How many of you live on the land?" Almost no one answers "I do," which is partly a function of the fact that very few of them come from rural environments, but more a function of how they're misreading the question: we all live on the land, but we've been socialized and educated to believe we don't (and that it's backward and degrading if we do). And maybe, by teaching this course via web enhancement, I'm contributing to the very belief the course tries to attack. Maybe, in saving the trees, I'm helping my students miss the forest.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Is This the Real Life, or Is This Just Fantasy?

I've been posting a lot recently about the distinctions we draw--or fail to draw--between reality and fantasy. Two incidents from my vacation indicate why this discussion matters.

Incident One: I'm walking down Bearskin Neck, the peninsula that juts into Rockport Harbor, with my wife and kids. In front of us, two teenage girls are walking side by side--and each of them is texting, presumably to someone else, someone not present. They're standing inches from each other: from a real person, a real friend, a real relative, a real presence. They could have been talking to each other, putting their arms around each other, or simply enjoying the sights, sounds, and other sensations of a seaside town at night. But they, like a whole generation of young people, prefer to remove themselves from real life and to enter a fantasy world of virtual experience.

Incident Two: I'm sitting on the sand watching my wife and kids play on the raft anchored a hundred yards off the shoreline of Rockport's Front Beach. (That's at low tide; at high tide, the raft is more like three hundred yards away. I know from swimming out there with them in water that couldn't have been more than 60 degrees.) In front of me, a man sits beside his eight-year-old daughter, who's collecting beach glass. She scampers about the beach excitedly, returning to him every few moments to show her newest treasure, to ask him where she can keep it safely, to encourage him to join her. But he doesn't join her, doesn't respond to her queries, barely registers her presence. Why? Because he's fooling with some handheld wireless device, some I Touch or Black Pod or whatever the hell, the entire time. (We're talking a good hour, not just minutes.) Here's a guy with a beautiful daughter, a happy, bubbly kid who actually longs to spend time with him, on a weekend at the beach--and he'd rather monkey around with some damn fool device that takes him either hundreds of miles away, to whoever on earth he's communicating with, or (even scarier) into the timeless, placeless realm of cyberspace, with its "apps" and buttons and icons and droids unanchored to anything real, anything actually there. And this isn't a teenager--this is a grown man, an ostensible adult, choosing, once again, fantasy over reality.

When my kids came back to shore, I climbed the rocks with them. The rocks were hard, and hot, and occasionally hazardous. But they were real, and I wouldn't have traded the experience for anything.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Best Laid Plans

I'm spending the week with my family in Rockport, Massachusetts, a seaside village and artist's colony on Cape Ann north of Boston. The water, predictably, is scrotum-tighteningly cold. Meanwhile, just south of us, great white sharks are circling Cape Cod, closing beaches and scaring the bejeebers out of anyone old enough to remember Jaws (in other words, everyone). Apparently this has to do with the explosion of the gray seal population, for reasons unknown.

Nature is a strange place. Things happen without cause or warning. Patterns reshape themselves, predictions fail. You congratulate yourself when things turn out the way you expect them to, puzzle over the things that don't. It's probably safer to say that when things do turn out the way you expected, that's the real puzzle.

A good friend of mine from high school, visiting with his family from their current home in Lexington, MA, reminded me that with the onset of global warming, a whole new puzzling logic enters the picture, a whole new future of unpredictability and randomness. We simply don't know what's going to happen in a climate-altered world, if in fact there is to be a climate-altered world. Nature, ever weird, will likely become weirder, but in what ways we can't really say.

Our conversation also turned to end-of-life issues (probably because, just before my trip, I got a call from the local cemetery offering me a free plot. I turned them down because, as I responded to their query, I don't plan to die). But truthfully, since death remains the one thing we can bank on, our conversation made me think about how I'd choose for my loved ones to dispose of my mortal remains. I've always disliked the idea of burial: too much wasted space. But cremation poses its own problems: too much carbon emitted. Hopefully, I won't have to make a decision any time soon.

But of course, the best laid plans....

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Last Bare Ender

My son, who treats anything and everything longer than it is wide as a lightsaber, has been begging me to take him to the movie The Last Airbender, so today I finally relented. It didn't look too good from the previews (the title alone is preposterous enough), and the critics skewered it. So I was figuring on just grinning and bearing it, hoping it wasn't too painful.

Oddly enough, it wasn't painful at all. Yes, the acting was amateurish; yes, the plot was slow and incoherent in spots; yes, the concept as a whole is kinda dumb. (And the directing wasn't that smooth either; you had to love the decision at one point in the film to frame the back of the Fire King's head in immense close-up and crisp focus while the rest of the shot, approximately 85% of the screen, was a distant, smudgy blur.) But the special effects were arresting, the various kingdoms convincingly realized and differentiated, and some of the action sequences--including the climactic battle of fire versus water--quite impressive. For a summertime kiddie fantasy film, it did what it was supposed to do: kept the kids entertained and the adults at least mollified.

(My only real complaint was the phony scene in which the princess of the Water Kingdom, a peripheral character with whom we have no reason to identify, sacrifices herself to restore the moon spirit her people need to defeat the Fire Nation. It was mechanical, unconvincing, emotionally flat, and utterly pointless, the kind of paint-by-numbers tear-jerking that annoys far more than it affects.)

I did notice, however, that this film is yet another in the tradition of "humans against the gods" fantasy films I identified in earlier posts, following in the train of Clash of the Titans and The Lightning Thief. In the scene just before the princess's sacrifice, when the Fire Nation general kills the fish within which the moon spirit resides (don't ask), he snarls, "We are the gods now!" It came out of nowhere; there was no indication earlier that the Fire Nation was anything but imperialistic, certainly no mention that they imagined themselves superior to the gods. But there it was. I've generally maintained that the more illogical and pointless a device like this is, the more it tells us about widespread cultural convictions and anxieties; when a film with zero obvious investment in the issue jumps on the Gods R Us bandwagon, we can safely say it's entered the cultural bloodstream.

We'll have to wait for the sequel to see if this goes anywhere (yes, the film ends on a cliffhanger, with its titular character having mastered only two of the realm's four elemental powers and the King of the Fire Nation dispatching his evil daughter to finish the novice airbender off). But whatever the future holds for this particular series, I think it's evident that something elemental is indeed going on in such films--something environmental as well, I believe. Though fewer and fewer Americans accept the reality of climate change, though the federal government has done absolutely nothing to address that issue, though we continue to live and consume as if there's nothing to be worried about, I suspect that we are deeply worried, so worried that our fears are slipping out even--or especially--in the most innocuous, fantasized, and easily ignored cultural places.

I read a couple days ago that scientists are predicting the human race will go extinct within the next century due to overpopulation, pollution, and resource depletion. We are the gods now. And we're bending the elements past the breaking point.