Waiting For Q

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Introduction   Deron Blake’s Cosmic Contraption

 

Chapter 1        Kryptonite in the Kale?

Chapter 2        Letters to the Future

Chapter 3        Boomer Brain

Chapter 4        Reason for Leaving

Chapter 5        Sexpectations

Chapter 6       The Language of Soul

Chapter 7        Top Ten Reasons

Chapter 8        Return to Willitopia

Chapter 9        The Great Chocolate Cake Robbery

Chapter 10      In Spite of Everything

Chapter 11      Weapons of Mass Distraction

Chapter 12      Peas on Earth

Chapter 13      A Leap of Faith

Chapter 14      Breathless

Chapter 15      Tickling the Bear

Chapter 16      Not for Sissies

Chapter 17      Way, Way Back to the Source

Chapter 18      Tuscany Yes or No

Excerpt from Waiting for Q, a novel

Introduction:

Deron Blake’s Cosmic Contraption

 

Up to a certain point in his life, Deron Blake was living proof that self-starters can still play the Game of America on their own terms. Fueled by renewable energies like curiosity, passions too sweet to abandon, and boatloads of persistence, these pathfinders sometimes cross the 100-year milestone still releasing fountain-of-youth elixirs. Good genes, sure, but it’s also about a lifelong desire to be here.

On the other hand, sometimes even champions get bowled over like tenpins. (Nobody’s exempt from the wrath of randomness.) Until his wife Karen had gotten sick and ultimately died a few years earlier, Deron was on track for the century club. He was a no-worries guy, you could see it in his face, his skin, in the way he carried himself. Even as this story begins he would have ranked high on a gladness-to-be-alive scale, except for a recent, horrifying diagnosis. He’d gone in for a routine physical exam and been told a week later that he probably wouldn’t be alive in a year. What!? The data set his chances at less than 5 percent. So… sorry Dr. Blake, but still, have a nice day…

A popular, often-interviewed professor of anthropology at the University of Denver, Deron processed this news with both head and heart. Part of him was actually intrigued by unexplored insights and feelings. For one, he felt less responsible to co-design an eleventh-hour strategy for an overpopulated species (now that’s a load off). He knew he’d done a decent job in this many-legged human race, invariably the crafty tortoise rather than the compulsive hare; but maybe it was time now to pass the torch; that’s just the way we do it.

In lighter, post-diagnosis moments, he could imagine a flock of messenger pigeons scattering his lifetime of hesitations and home runs to the winds like cosmic confetti; and in his head, he was okay with this ritualistic sort of finale. He also embraced the observation that life seems to provide a cushion near the end, a sweet holiday beyond both embarrassment and delight. When you’re dying, you’re offered a free pass: no more scolding, high-pitched parrot voices nagging, “What’s your password, what’s your password? (Squawk) Why didn’t you try harder?” The fact is, you did your best and now time’s up, so go with it.

Whenever he felt spooked by the monstrous bridge that loomed ahead – the one he’d cross when he came to it – he took refuge in his expanded feelings of humility and generosity. Assuming he didn’t make it, wouldn’t friends and family benefit far more from whatever grace he could muster than from a pitiful, whimpering meltdown?

***************

As Deron evaluated these abrupt script changes with his head, he was fairly successful. After all, death happens to everyone, blah, blah… But in his heart and gut, he was rattled, as never before. (Stravinsky violins: Is life stuck in fast-forward? Stop!) It felt like dying would involve poignant good-byes; busted promises and burning regrets; last-minute, last-chance money decisions; and not least, the spirit-numbing aches and pains. Damn, he thought, dying would be even more grueling than being born! (We scream in the beginning and we scream at the end, in each case swaddled in blankets so we’ll just shut up). But in between, oh my god: these colors, these gypsy dances, these emotional epiphanies…! From his stark, new vantage point, Deron now understood that life is undeniably a buffet of exotic offerings, whether or not we choose to indulge. What bugged him most of all was the belief that he still had music in him; insights and discoveries that might be useful for humanity’s long journey ahead. He wished he could pass this hard-won wisdom along, in person, not just leave it at the exit like a bundle of dirty laundry.

As an anthropologist, he’d seen much evidence that humans do have an instinct about what follows life, but he just couldn’t imagine the physics of it. If afterlife, or some amorphous spiritual realm, is more than just a sucker’s fable, it’s made of real wavelengths; real molecular patterns or… ethereal genetic templates, right? Something measurable with the right instruments; hell, maybe it’s even hackable. (HEAVEN HACKED BY WIKILEAKS). But how does this cosmic contraption actually work and why don’t we know more about it? (He guessed that our brains just don’t have the capacity yet to understand it.)

Professor Blake had researched the field of human potential and achievement in great depth, immersing himself in it like a jazz lover in playful, profound rhythms and melodies. Ever since he was a lanky Ohio kid playing all-star baseball for his high school and college teams, he’d been fascinated by the question, How will the next pages and chapters of the human diary play out? He truly wished he could come back and have a look after he was gone; maybe take a spiritual sabbatical back in what was then the future.

After an extensive education at Colorado State University, then Antioch, then the mind-bending Berkeley for a doctorate, he’d grabbed an enviable teaching assignment at University of Denver, where for nearly four decades he’d built the Futures Studies department brick by brick, exploring the innovations and poetic longings of cultures all over the world. The customs stamps on his passport filled half a dozen booklets and by now, his understanding of human behavior was just short of encyclopedic. But in these past few innings of the game, he’d been running low on hustle. In fact, at age 63, he sometimes felt guilty, exposing students to the world-weariness that can pop up in….ultra-slow…. motion…. like an arthritic, sometimes cranky, Jack-in-the-Box.

His career goal had been to inspire, encourage, and energize these young minds. (“You don’t have to think like me, but dammit, you do have to think!” he’d bark at his students from the front of his sloping auditorium-style classroom). But in this brave, oblivious new world – where good people die young and machines don’t work – it felt like humanity’s cultural immune system had crashed; weapons of mass distraction were overpowering reality. Though he’d devoted his career to envisioning positive futures, his cynical side sometimes broke out, like the purplish rash on one leg that now came and went – a symptom of his odious disease.

Deron’s lesson plans had always centered on themes like these: Are we, personally, behaving generously? As a species, are we cleaning up after ourselves? Are we creating legendary moments of cooperative brilliance? It vexed him that many humans had been so battered by social mania that only a wake-up splash in humanity’s face could turn this huge ocean liner around. (Wasn’t it cultural snoozing that had allowed a bully to take possession of the White House?) Deron applauded the individual efforts of selfless super-heroes, but really, only a sweeping, non-violent revolution could save the day. He wondered if humans still had the chutzpah and horse sense for a planetary uprising of civil disobedience, so masterfully demonstrated by super-heroes like Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

****************

Sure, Deron was stunned silly by the roll-out of the digital age – what he playfully called digitopia—but even larger themes had been tossed in this generation like salad in a spinner: equality and human rights as milestones; a continuing zoom into the essential biology and physics of life in the universe; a re-visioning of Earth as a sacred garden with its own self-evident rights. Themes like these are indispensable for any permanent civilization, on any planet—at least in this galaxy.

He’d always felt a responsibility to blow the whistle on cultural indecision and contribute jumper-cable insights from around the world. (For example, how did Sweden and Costa Rica so successfully and profitably unplug from fossil fuels? Why couldn’t the US do the same, quickly?) All his mentors, all the test results concurred: he should be a communicator, a guide, an innovator. Although you wouldn’t call him wildly optimistic, most people who knew Deron acknowledged his dogged sense of hope. The grooves were too deep in the vinyl recording of his life; he’d always be a cheerleader even if his team was two dozen runs behind.

The fact is, he was proud of his generation in spite of its painful sell-outs and detours. This was a championship team overall, armed with the power of convictions, education, and now, time enough to wrap it all together. Deron sensed that something Big was about to happen in humanity’s collective consciousness and that Boomers could still play a role in this shift. There was an inkling of inevitability, like the feeling right before a Category 5 sneeze or an explosive 10.0 orgasm. Deron suspected that our whole civilization was in that hovering space; right before the release.

He thought, wouldn’t it be sweet if in the end the Boomers could help accomplish something really momentous? If, in a madcap bottom-of the-ninth rally, they could alter the course of history with a well-orchestrated change in itinerary? To Deron, the current mainstream mission – must crush living systems to accumulate wealth to control the universe – was a fatal, energy-sapping virus, duping us into believing that we’re not strong enough to survive without Amazon.com; not resourceful enough to grow or cook our own food, entertain ourselves, or even think original thoughts. No longer socially equipped to meet fundamental needs for security, trust, and respect. Deron’s dogged response was “Horseshit!” With a little courage and creativity, we can access these human needs – free – instead of frantically trying to buy them. Why not just change the script; redefine the word “success” to make it independent of money-metrics and dwindling resources? Meet the basic needs of everyone on Earth solidly – but like dogs after a cool, refreshing swim, shake off the collective angst of not having or being enough.

He was convinced that the initial spark for this Cultural Revolution would occur in the the human mind. It wouldn’t require Star Wars weapons and or trillions of dollars; we’d just have to agree to scrap an old-fashioned mindset and send its overpaid champions back to the minors. Why not go down in history as cultural revolutionaries instead of subservient sock puppets? Gandhi was right on: there’s far more to life than increasing its speed—especially when we’re traveling in the wrong direction. Deron’s deepest, purest hope was that we DO know – way down in these crazy, twisted genes—when to change direction. That after all these Ice Ages, mass migrations and tussles with tigers, evolution has equipped us to pull out another upset. He chuckled whenever he recalled Woody Allen’s comically-grim choice: “One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” With regard to his own life choices, Deron had always wondered, “When my time comes and my whole life flashes before me, will it hold my attention?” In these moments of deepest reflection, Deron knew one thing for sure: though he was only one small voice in the human chorus, he wanted to get his part right.

So. Our story – not about death but the life which invariably precedes it—chronicles the activities, convictions, and desires of Deron and his circle of friends and family – all trying to live authentic lives of gusto and grace. It begins in what the professor, in one of his more impish moods, might call a very primitive era of humanity: the present. Smack in the middle of a massive group therapy session with the urgent goal of deciding—like a honking, flapping flock of geese – which way to go.

Chapter 1: Kryptonite in the Kale?

Deron and his best buddy Kai Sakata sat outside a cafe near Denver’s Washington Park, a brick-solid neighborhood where Deron and his wife had lived for 27 years. He would normally have been delighted, even ecstatic, on this first really warm day of summer, June 6, with its composite fragrance and verdant flush of oxygen. But things were different now. After he and Kai ordered salmon burgers and a huge salad, Deron skipped the usual banter and just dropped the bomb: “I have some news that has… kind of turned me inside out,” he said with an involuntary gulp. Deron’s hazel eyes met Kai’s brown eyes squarely as he continued, “In my annual check-up, the blood analysts found something – a virus similar to meningitis that’s very hard—usually impossible—to get rid of.” (He still couldn’t believe it was his turn to say these words!) “The typical course this disease takes is to slowly, steadily destroy white blood cells. The immune system checks out, and then within a year or so…” He snapped his fingers to complete the thought.

Although Deron had willed himself to shift gears, they were still grinding like a vintage Mustang transmission. For only the second time in his previously trouble-free life, Deron felt vulnerable, even a little betrayed; the recipient of a terse Tweet from the universe saying, “Fuck You.”  Seeing Kai’s frozen face, Deron added quickly, “It’s not contagious!” He delivered his news deliberately, like a parent carefully stepping over a sleeping child; but the starkness of the words seemed to conk Kai in the skull like a wild pitch. (Are we ever really prepared for news like this?)

Each man was strong in his way; Deron quietly confident, a man of knowledge who’d always taken care of his own health and was always supportive of others’ successes. In his modest way, he downplayed the PhD after his name, always more focused on the work itself rather than his status. He’d willfully, heroically bushwhacked through a  dark forest at the edge of life following his wife’s death; and now, in a sunnier clearing, this little surprise…? WTF? It felt as though Superman’s demonic nemesis, Mr. Mxyzptlk, had slipped kryptonite into his breakfast smoothie.

And Kai? A grateful drop-out from the New York City world of high-risk, high-return investment, searching for his personal true north while apprenticing – even in his late fifties – to his father, an herbalist. Though less commanding in stature than Deron, Kai was more intense, more focused.  Physically in tune, he was a gentle person with a strong will. Since his early years he’d supported the peace, civil rights and environmental movements.  With a vehement mandate from his Japanese family and its culture to do his very best in all things, he had dropped out of the obsessive and corrupt world of Wall Street as other, more intrinsic priorities had crystallized. He wanted to help heal a badly-bruised civilization, and he wanted to be of service to those he loved. These priorities overlapped Deron’s as well as his parents’.

Deron’s announcement was like a nuclear bomb exploding down the block, on Wash Park. “Shit!” Kai said, outraged, in the tone of a lifelong Yankees fan watching the Red Sox sweep another World Series, those bastards! He reached across the table to grab his friend’s arm. “I’m so sorry to hear this, man.”  With improvised bravado he continued, “But people beat things like this all the time.  My father’s good friend had a tumor the size of an orange taken out of his brain a few years ago and he’s clearer and more energetic now than he ever was…” Deron nodded, trying to communicate with his manner that he was dealing with it, as he had with Karen’s illness and death.

“Are there natural cures for this?” Kai asked, shaking his head slightly as he processed. “Mega doses of superfoods, herbs, biofeedback, acupuncture, deep meditation, prayer…?

“Sure, they’re all part of the strategy,” Deron said. “And I’m also researching the side effects of ‘conventional drugs,’ even though I’m skeptical.  With a statistical five percent shot at coming out alive maybe you toss a coin and bet on a prescription that could either cure you or kill you.”  Then with a slight, sarcastic smile he added, “Some concoction that the scientist’s son mixed up with his chemistry set…” Kai noticed that Deron seemed to be in a different, somehow more powerful place. Deron continued, “I saw a documentary the other night about three cancer patients who wished they’d skipped the side effect-heavy drugs and opted for clearer quality time with their families and friends at the end.  So…. the main reason I wanted to get together is to talk about an endgame, in case it’s checkmate.” The two were silent, then Deron continued, as if speaking from the other end of a long hallway, “I just want to make the most of my time, right? Whatever time I have.”  Having dealt with his wife’s early passing, Deron knew death personally; he knew in his bones that it sometimes has its way, like a flash flood in a desert canyon.

“I have to say, you seem to be dealing with this news pretty well,” Kai said, admiring Deron’s dispassionate cool and his dry, academic sense of humor. “You’ve told Lisa, of course?” he asked. Lisa was Deron’s high-energy, very analytical daughter, thirty-three and strongly simpatico with her Dad. Working through Karen’s illness together had redefined and strengthened their bond.

“Sure, she’s offering great support and I want our connection to get even stronger, that’s a high priority.” He proudly thought about Lisa and her lovable husband Brad, who together owned a small business on Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall, marketing fine, handmade crafts from around the world. Although they couldn’t afford to live in Boulder’s real estate bubble, fortunately, with their parents’ help, they’d bought a more reasonably-priced house in nearby Louisville—a town often on those “great places to live” lists. (Did anyone remember that it had once been an unfashionable coal-mining town?)

There was another pause as Deron reached for his iced tea. The glass was cool to the touch, with drops of condensation on it. He took a long thirsty guzzle, marveling how vivid the world becomes when life seems to be in short supply. Was this sharpening of the senses an evolved strategy? Would it help a person cope more effectively in the last hours, sharing love and valuable lessons learned? Deron knew it would be impossible to explain his new clarity to Kai, though his good friend was certainly sharper than most. Setting his glass down forcefully, the professor silently invited Kai to talk.  Always calm and deliberate on the surface, Kai was internally searching for a useful response for his friend. The muscles of his jaw bulged, revealing the man’s intensity in times of crisis; he was a man of action and also empathy. Quickly moving from off-balance to core-centered, he said, “I’m going to ask my father to look at your diagnosis and see what herbs can zap this virus.” Acknowledging Kai’s strong belief in natural cures, Deron raised his eyebrows and nodded. Kai continued, “I’ll email to remind you to send us whatever diagnostic data you have, okay? Symptoms, genetic markers, possible locations where you could have caught the virus…”

“Sure, man, thanks. But let’s go back to my original question,” he said, leaning forward. “What would you do in my shoes?”

“I’d fight it, of course,” Kai said without hesitation. Though he held his own version of Zen Buddhism, or pantheism, or whatever you wanted to call it, Kai’s belief system was grounded in nature and didn’t rely on what he thought of as “tall tales.” In his twenties, he’d been a firefighter on a hotshot crew that jetted around the country wherever needed; slight burn scars on his neck and right jaw were an indelible reminder of that hellish day near Chico, California, when he’d saved an elderly couple’s lives as well as their horses but just about paid the full price. To Deron, these barely-noticeable marks had always seemed like a badge of honor.

After a thoughtful pause, Kai continued, “If I absolutely knew I was going to die – which you don’t know – I guess I’d see what small contributions I could make before my time was up…. I’d drill deeper into things I’d already connected with, rather than desperately assembling a ‘bucket list.’” He joked, “I’m just not that interested in going to Disney World or Las Vegas…” The hesitation in Kai’s voice was evidence he’d much rather talk about Deron’s heroic return to health than a grim, sailboat voyage into the sunset. It was also a symptom of his cultural upbringing; as the only child in a Japanese family, Kai had learned to avoid dramatizing one’s own challenges or accomplishments. You just did what you were supposed to do, out of respect, honor, and duty.

“If I beat this, we can cycle through Tuscany like we’ve always talked about,” Deron promised, his wistful words slicing through reality like a laser. “That’s a little more appealing than Disney World.” Then, rebounding a little, he reported whimsically that Walt Disney was still “on ice,” waiting to be revived when and if science permitted. “He’s in suspended animation.” Deron said, waiting to see if Kai got the pun.

“But still making billions a year,” Kai added, then leaning forward to tell his friend emphatically, “You’re going to beat this, dude! Of course you want to use your time well, I get that. So dig deeper into your passions, do more of the things that have made you happy,” Kai said, trying to coax Deron’s will-to-live out of the shadows. “I mean, you love teaching and learning about cultures; getting together with your friends; being out in nature; your softball league… you’re going to keep doing that, right?” (Deron was player-coach of a co-ed softball team.) “I may play,” Deron answered, “But I’m going to find out if somebody else can do the managing.” The first scheduled game was in a few weeks, and the first practice, in a few days.

Kai nodded, continuing, “You also love art, jazz, western swing; you like to travel… ski… ride your bike… your Scrabble tournaments… you’re learning to cook like some five-star chef… you like your garden in the backyard … You’re a helluva productive guy! I’ve always been amazed by your energy.” Deron was grateful that his friend knew him well enough to list his interests and passions. “Thanks, man. But the question is, which pieces of that busyness really matter, as the frickin’ clock ticks? And by the way, my garden’s just a potted plant compared to yours and your parents’!”

Kai and his parents shared a huge, Zen-inspired landscape in the yards of two adjacent houses in Denver’s lively Highlands neighborhood.  Several years earlier, when Kai returned to his family with a stash of serendipitous Wall Street money, he’d signed mortgages for both houses with large down payments – an action that challenged his parents’ sense of authority but at the same time made them intensely proud of their son. (Kai was stone silent about some of the shenanigans his firm had gotten away with.) Together, they’d torn down and recycled a rickety cedar fence between the yards to create the large, contemplative garden space that became a neighborhood landmark, even catching the attention of national media. Both their front and back yards—including a large greenhouse on the parents’ lot—were abundant with fruits, vegetables, and ornamental and medicinal flowers and shrubs; many of them with names like goji berry, bok choy, and hardy bamboo.

There was another long silence as both Kai and Deron examined their thoughts, then Kai continued, “I know I’d spend as much time with May as possible.” There was a barely-audible quaver in his voice; he knew that Deron would always carry the loss of Karen with him like a heavy backpack. Deron didn’t have a solid partner to provide support, and his parents were gone, too. Besides his daughter and son-in-law, Deron’s only immediate family – his brother’s clan – lived in northern California, busy living their dream of an off-the-grid, self-sufficient lifestyle. In addition to his daughter, Deron had instinctively reached out to Kai and his wife May, who had over the years become Deron’s and Karen’s closest friends.  When Karen was alive the two couples often hung out – sometimes vacationing together in places like Belize or Peru. Karen and May frequently ran or skied together, and the two men liked to explore rural Colorado on their bikes, or just walk and talk. Occasionally they got out their archery bows and set up a target in Deron’s backyard, or sat down at a chess board with a pitcher of locally-brewed beer.

Kai, too, still felt a heaviness in his chest about Karen’s passing, especially given the troubled period before her sudden death. (She’d contracted a suddenly-lethal staph infection after a minor surgery, possibly a fortuitous turn of events, since dementia can linger for 7 or more years.)  Fourteen months earlier, at the age of 58, she’d been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, a finding that Deron had known was coming. In earlier days, when she and Deron played Scrabble together (they’d always been an even match despite Deron’s nerdy competitiveness) her words shrank to four letters, then to a childlike three. She would wander away from the house, one time inexplicably gone all afternoon. She’d lost her ability to speak descriptively – in stark contrast to her years and accomplishments as a writer. One day, she’d gone out for a run and tumbled down a concrete embankment, requiring 31 stitches on her face and arms. Deron had gotten a call from St. Anthony Hospital’s emergency room, informing him that someone had called an ambulance and that she was in intensive care. Her clothes covered with blood, Karen had gotten flustered after the fall; she couldn’t remember the president’s name, or even Deron’s name. (Luckily, she’d had an ID in the pocket of her running shorts.) They’d done an MRI and although she wasn’t bleeding internally, they’d found something even more ominous: some of the image’s light-green lobes were fading to gray, like once-vibrant coral reefs fade to white. Diagnosis: fronto-temporal dementia; untreatable. About that time, the repeated phrase, “….all right, all right…” began to dominate her sentences. She could still receive and understand much of what others were saying, but she couldn’t form sentences to transmit her own thoughts, not even on paper. Being so close to this degenerative process, Deron increasingly began to think of Karen’s brain as a cotton ball; she still had thoughts, but he guessed they were mostly cotton thoughts.

Another time, at a Target store, he was holding a picture frame and turned to see by her expression if she liked it. Presto, she’d magically dematerialized! He frantically ran up and down the aisles, trying to find her before she wandered out the front door, oblivious to traffic.  He alerted store managers, then the mall’s security police. Standing as sentry from the store into the mall, he imagined a mass of marching shoppers, sweeping her along in the currents like a piece of driftwood. But after ten or twenty long minutes a security guard returned with a smiling, clueless Karen by his side.  As they walked out of the store – his hand firmly grasping hers – Deron wondered what had been going on in her mind, on her silent, self-guided tour. Maybe something like, “Those swimsuit colors are so bright…. Something about a red bicycle I’m riding but Mom is calling me.Look at that over-sized, stuffed-animal dog, standing next to those laughing kids. The dog seems so soft and happy and I want to pet him….I like the shape of that little building, made out of…. Legos. I want to touch it and feel all the raised dots…. I feel something, is it hunger? ….”

After the mall incident, he realized he could never again leave her alone in a public space, not even to go to the men’s room – a real challenge if he’d been drinking coffee or an extra glass of juice. (A few times he’d even taken her into a men’s room with him, after first calling inside.) On the positive side, Karen challenged his abilities. Keeping her safe and engaged in a park, a store, or a movie theater tested his patience and his love. He’d comment, “Look at that hawk’s nest!” while they walked in a park, even though her eyes were riveted to her feet, maybe counting the steps between cracks in the sidewalk. Just after the diagnosis, he asked her what he could do for her as she entered this darkest of tunnels, and she’d replied, “Just be there for me.” He’d honored that commitment, protecting her as if she were a beautifully exotic, wounded bird.

To a large degree, he was unconcerned about how they must look to others. He would enhance her quality of life even it meant being a spectacle- one outstretched arm guiding her gently across a busy street while Pepper, their white-muzzled Lab, tugged in the other direction. Deron was not going to hide her away; with millions of Americans on the same doomed path, they could just get used to it. When he did feel self-conscious, he’d mentally recite a line he remembered from some movie: “I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations…” Their redefined relationship wasn’t a one-way street at all; he’d gotten as much from their time together as she did, although his faithful visits did compromise his schedule.  When they held hands and walked, he knew that hand like he knew his own middle name.

When Karen had walked into an unfamiliar neighbor’s house, scaring the bejeezus out of its residents, Deron knew even sub-normal life was no longer possible.  After trying for a year to cope with Karen’s steady decline—watching his class enrollment decline and his weight drop from the stress—Deron and Lisa decided to move her to the memory care floor at Golden Years retirement home, a large old Denver mansion where she was the youngest among six or seven others – mostly women. Although he kept up with research about cures, one of the most promising treatments—ultrasound to eliminate plaque – was still only experimental and unavailable. He found this reality so ironic; would the technique be perfected just after she was gone? In her last days, he suspected that if he’d asked her to “squeeze my hand if you understand what I’m saying,” there would be no response. He didn’t test it; he just kept bantering, as if she could understand. It felt better that way. The last coherent, stuttering words he heard her say were, “I love you, too.”

Fortunately, Deron and Karen had carried a good insurance policy, but this kind of luck felt like a wet pebble in a bucket. Watching her rapid, downward spiral had shifted Deron’s basic understanding of life. He’d witnessed the steady unraveling of his soul mate’s mind, and his world could never again be the same. He read articles about how the memories of a person with Alzheimer’s or dementia are still there, just buried under sticky layers of plaque. This finding left Deron pondering a Zen-like question: What exactly is a memory? Like a chemical photograph?

Deron, Lisa, Kai and May still regarded that long, dark decline as more poignant than death itself, especially the day when they moved her into the memory care unit – essentially, maximum security prison with a would-be homey facade.

******

Kai, too, was in transition. What should he dedicate the rest of his life to? His father, Yukio, was trying to convince Kai to take over the family’s healing arts trade. Yukio and his wife Michiko ran a business they called Kibo (Japanese for “hope”) primarily focused on aromatic essential oils, medicinal herbs, salves, and teas – some of which they grew in their own gardens and greenhouse. With good success in alleviating pain and supporting well-being, several of his formulations had gained a foothold with both the Asian community and the Whole Foods crowd. Many in Yukio Sakata’s clientele of several hundred respectfully called him sensei, or master.  Both Yukio and Michiko were second-generation immigrants whose ethics were still firmly rooted in Japanese culture, Zen Buddhism, and Shintoism, a reverence for the shimmering magic of nature. More than anything, the father wanted continuity; wouldn’t it fulfill him and perpetuate his life work if his son (finally) followed in his footsteps?

Kai and May had been partners for 12 years, a very happy union. She was a remarkably attractive Danish woman with short blonde hair and a trim physique who – coincidentally – Deron had also known and dated many years before. In those young, relatively carefree years almost forty years earlier, Deron and May were considering moving in together when her mother got sick, compelling May to move back to Denmark to take care of her. Deron’s and May’s long-distance relationship continued for close to a year; several times they had each crossed the 5,000-mile canyon that separated them. But Deron wanted more than a long-distance romance, and May’s return date was uncertain. In fact, she’d implied that she might stay in Denmark, why didn’t he move there to be with her? However, just by accident, he’d met and fallen in love with Karen, an uninhibited, self-starting writer, who, after all, lived just a few miles away.

Yet Deron hadn’t seen the last of May, who returned to her much-loved Colorado after her mother died to resume her work in the world of non-profit activism.  After quietly confirming through mutual friends that Deron was still married to Karen, May began dating Kai – a man a few years younger than her who she’d met at a conference on solar energy and green building design. Kai had also met Deron in overlapping circles, and step by step, these two couples became an extended family – along with Deron’s daughter Lisa and her husband; and Kai’s parents. They got together routinely for holiday dinners, book and movie discussions, or short hikes in the mountains.

********

“Here’s what I think,” Deron proposed. “Life is like a game of Scrabble. You make the best words you can with the letters you get and the skill you’ve gained, but if that Z or Q doesn’t show up, what can you do?” Kai took a deep breath, then exhaled, responding, “So what does that mean? You just give up?” Then he needled, maybe projecting some his own unresolved issues, “Have you done what you set out to do?” He knew his words sounded abrasive, but he wouldn’t buy into the metaphor of life as a fatalistic game of scrabble.

Deron paused, then responded in his practiced lecture mode, “Well, I’ve thought a lot recently about the life choices I’ve made, and why.  It feels like my overall goal is to be useful and unified with my larger self – all of life on Earth.  Although it’s drummed into us that we’re individual, disconnected, disjointed consumer-machines, I believe that we humans, and plants – hell, even termites – are one interconnected organism, co-designing a world that fits together as well as possible. Isn’t that the purpose of an individual, to live and share new, improved life strategies? So when I die, I continue because the rest of life continues, it’s that simple! I’m safe in the universe, whether I’m alive or dead,” Deron concluded, like the Ted Talk presenter he had once been. It was obvious he became energized when discussing such speculative topics, but the question was, did he still believe what he was saying, given his circumstances?

“Interesting thoughts,” Kai conceded, “But life needs you here, as YOU, for another couple of decades at least. Got that?!” So would you mind putting your energy into living, please?” Kai used this familiar, joking tone with only a handful of other people, and Deron received it with gratitude. As Kai pushed his chair back to go the men’s room, Deron sat running his hand over his chin in thought. He had a neatly trimmed, salt and pepper beard (“mostly salty now,” he would joke) and a few new wrinkles from recent sleepless nights. His hair was receding like a slowly melting glacier, to a more northern hairline, but was still fairly thick on top. (His standing joke, before the diagnosis, was that he wasn’t bad for 93.) Psychologically, he was more solid than many – his parents had been there for both Deron and his brother Rocket, even through the turbulent adolescent years, which—especially in his brother’s case – included crazy-making psychedelic drugs.

Deron was just over six feet tall with an athletic build, but he’d opted in high school and college for the less gladiatorial sports: baseball, golf, and chess, rather than potentially brain-crunching football or rugby. “How’s that for macho?” he’d joke with a self-effacing yet confident smile – narrating a thumbnail-bio to some new date at a coffee shop. Even before dating May and Karen, Deron had had some very resonant relationships in high school and college, getting the “ladies’ man” reputation that went with it. He had rugged good looks, calm but upbeat energy, and he was easy to talk with. Throughout his life, women had often been intrigued, as they were with his older brother Rocket – who’d rebelliously carried his sports nickname into adulthood like a tattoo. The Blake brothers were notorious in Midwest sports circles in their youths, and several pro baseball franchises tried to sign each of them right out of college. In fact, with nothing more pressing at the time, Rocket tried a season with the Indianapolis Indians, a Cincinnati Reds farm team. He had strategically—and in his mind, heroically—dodged the 1970 draft by convincing a friend, a medical student, to perforate one of his eardrums, permanently diminishing his hearing but not his convictions. He did okay with the Indians – a hustling young shortstop with major league potential – but at that time the pay scale required minor leaguers to have part-time jobs or else be damn good gamblers. Although he loved the game, he didn’t relish the collective angst of teammates scrapping to “make it to the house.” When he didn’t get called up after a season, he quit. The stronger pulls were romance and independence; he packed up a van load of possessions and moved to northern California to be with Ellen, his college girlfriend. Together, they conspired to venture “back to the land” in Mendocino County, California, a few hours north of the Bay area.

A few years later, Deron went on a parallel route after college: drafted and also having better destinations in mind than Vietnam, he applied for Conscientious Objector status, serving two years with a health-related non-profit in Rhodesia – later called Zimbabwe. Then he found several international internships—in Ghana and Iraq – finally coming back to complete his educational odyssey with a doctorate in anthropology. For the most part, those student years were fueled by genuine curiosity and a strong desire to make a difference.

Together, the two brothers exemplified many of their generation’s formative maxims and mottos: question authority; make love, not war; you are what you eat; do your own thing; freedom now; and even – in Rocket’s case – turn on, tune in, and drop out.

What They STILL Don’t Know About Climate Change

I’m back! After lots of personal issues, working on other things, I’m coming back to blogging and will be posting pieces as they reach completion, I’ll also be posting excerpts from a novel-in-progress, Waiting for Q. Stay tuned, and stay well!

Let’s face it, some people are either too dense to understand basic science or too selfish to try. It’s no more difficult to understand the causes of climate change than it is to be a German shepherd trapped in a hot car with the windows rolled up. (The carbon dioxide that blankets our blue-marble planet is of course the windows, and the panting dog is us.) If climate change deniers can handle a little grade-school science, here it is: ultraviolet waves come into the car but heat-inducing infrared waves can’t get out. Okay?
Years after the hellish fact, we’re still stunned that we didn’t stop Hitler soon enough to prevent the Holocaust. What will Americans say 75 years from now when coastal subway systems are fish tanks? When the insurance companies are bankrupt, and earthquakes from mindless fracking are as common as sunrise? They may say, “We thought reports about ‘icebergs the size of Delaware’ were just fake news, and besides we liked it when it was shorts-weather in December. But now, when our cities are too hot to be outside and air conditioning has gotten so expensive, we realize we probably should have done something…”

We should do many somethings, like redesign more sustainable towns and cities; cut way back on meat and palm oil consumption; incorporate greenhouse gases into major industry products like plastic, packaging and cement; transition to a less invasive agriculture; switch to electric cars powered by wind, solar, hydro, biogas, and geothermal energy; cogenerate heat and electricity in factories and power plants; continue to make our buildings and appliances more efficient; walk more; grow more food locally and eat less energy-intensive, processed food… These are some of the things we can do right now, each of which will create lots of jobs, lots of profit, and lots of satisfaction. Keep America Great! Terrific!

Humans are not the primary cause of climate change? Really? Do the deniers ever consider that our exhalations alone contribute huge amounts of carbon dioxide? (Then throw in all the power plants, factories, decimated rainforests, cars and trucks, consumer goods, and synthetic fertilizers – that’s a lot of gas, folks.) I’m not suggesting we can stop breathing but we can surely stop putting our fingers in our ears, because here’s the deal: Even if humans were not the primary cause of climate change, we’d still have to do something about it – quickly – to keep the German shepherds, children, and cornfields from keeling over. This is the weak link in the deniers’ argument: They assume incorrectly that if humans are only a minor contributor (not true), we also don’t need to respond to the crisis. What? Acknowledging that the world’s weather has gone completely haywire in recent decades, we need to mobilize WWII-style to reduce greenhouse gas emissions no matter who or what put them there. Unless we want Earth to become another Venus, where the average temperature is 864 degrees Fahrenheit – hot enough to melt lead. Why is it so hot there? Clouds of carbon dioxide that built up in the planet’s atmosphere, partly because there weren’t any plants to recycle it. It’s irrelevant that humans aren’t to blame for climate change on Venus; what matters scientifically is that CO2 – along with other greenhouse gases – is the cause of the massive overheating that makes Venus permanently uninhabitable.

Why can’t the deniers admit, under oath, that since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide levels have increased 30 percent to their highest levels in more than ten million years? That methane and nitrous oxide concentrations – even more powerful greenhouse gases than C02 – have also skyrocketed? Come to think of it, aren’t these deniers the same people who believed (or pretended they did) that tobacco, radium, chlorofluorocarbons, and leaded gasoline were harmless and that coal dust didn’t cause Black Lung disease? The same sort of people who insisted the Earth was flat? They were wrong then, and they are wrong now.

I want to cordially invite deniers by the droves to the April 29, 2017 Peoples Climate March in Washington, where there will be plenty of lemonade and cold beer vendors because probably even in April it will be record-setting warm. I’ll personally buy anyone a refreshing drink who volunteers to sit in a hot car with all the windows rolled up.

Sustainability Begins with People

I spent three weeks in South Africa this winter, learning the meaning of sustainability in a developing country.

Something Fresh in Memel, South Africa

Is it possible to create a little slice of heaven in a place where both unemployment and the incidence of HIV are high and the stark shadow of apartheid still persists in both race and gender relations? Absolutely, say husband and wife Steven Ablondi and Cindy Burns, residents and investors in the little rural town of Memel, about three hours south of Pretoria and Johannesburg. Not that it will be easy, of course, but the two Americans are well prepared for the challenge. In decades of diplomatic and legal work with the United Nations, they helped resettle crisis-ridden refugees from countries like Rwanda, Bosnia and Cambodia. Now they’ve thrown hearts, souls, and savings into their vision of a resilient community where health, practical life skills, self-reliance, and property values are all on the upswing. Where human rights are respected and human resources are used to full advantage.

Memel and its predominantly black township, Zamani, was once a regional hub for farmers, but now it is struggling to reinvent itself. Steven and Cindy want to help demonstrate that rural towns can be self-reliant places to live, on a sturdy foundation of “pocket neighborhoods” with hand-crafted houses; community gardens and small farms rich in jobs and food security; and healthy new businesses that offer locally-accountable goods and services.

The Free State’s platteland is a region well-known for its natural assets: productive farms, wide-open spaces; and a remarkable abundance of bird species. First drawn to Memel by bird-watching opportunities, Steven quickly saw an Eden in the rough. “Memel didn’t have an ATM at the bank or a single place to eat then, but it did have lots of yards with gardens and orchards, a beautiful church, and a low crime rate.” With a background in real estate as well as law, he bought first one, then a series of properties. Says Cindy, “I was working in Baghdad when he told me he was buying properties, and I asked him, ‘What would I do if we retire in a place like that?’” She would find out soon enough.

 

Permaculture Gardens and Designer Earth Houses

“I’ve always loved to work with teams of people,” says Cindy. “When I finally left my U.N. career and joined Steven in Memel, there already was a crew of gardeners from the nearby township learning about organic techniques.” Cindy was not yet expert in permaculture – which optimizes the inter-relationships among plants, soil, water, and beneficial insects – but she and her young protégé from Zimbabwe, Tedmore, have steadily created a system that captures and stores rainwater to irrigate the garden; uses the heat of a huge compost pile to provide hot showers for the crew; uses certain plants such as comfrey to repel insect pests, and in short, fully utilizes all available resources. “Tedmore was first employed with us as a ditch digger, but he showed such promise that he’s now in charge of garden operations,” she explains. “It may be true that it takes a village to raise a child,” she says, “but it also takes skillful individuals to make a strong village.”

Memel Organics garden now produces enough vegetables, fruit, and eggs to feed healthy meals to employees, a steady stream of guests, and the residents themselves. Hours-fresh produce is sold weekly at the farmer’s market Cindy recently launched, and surplus food is shared with the local primary school, a nursery school, and an orphanage. They’ve already purchased the property that will house a health-oriented, gourmet restaurant in the future – the kind of place that will lure visitors from the big cities.

Meanwhile, Steven is focusing on the construction of sustainable buildings to house both residents and new businesses. “I’ve always been interested in owner-built homes made from locally available resources,” he explains. “In the U.S., adobe and straw bale homes have proven their durability and efficiency, and similar materials can work here in South Africa.” On their stand in Memel are various attractive prototypes: an elegant round building, hand-sculpted from cob (mud, straw and manure) and a rammed earth house that will soon be a studio for holistic therapies. Each building project was overseen by a visitor who had never before built such a structure – a deliberate demonstration by Steven of the simplicity of earth-centered construction. Before building the round house, Steven and Cindy went to the secondary school in Zamani and asked the principal for student volunteers to work over the holiday season. “He told us, teary-eyed, that no one had ever asked students to be part of something like this,” Steven says. “Seven black girls from the township came over and worked with our young friend Jaine to create this pretty little building.”

The need for houses that are better insulated is clear. “Existing houses in Memel were built according to Pretoria standards,” says Steven, “but winters here are much longer and colder; some days it never gets above freezing. Sturdy houses insulated with earth are warm in winter and cool in summer.” Housing in the black township is far less adequate: about three thousand people live in poorly-insulated, sheet-metal homes that offer little in terms of comfort, aesthetics, or efficiency. The pocket neighborhood of four households that is now under construction offers a glimpse of something better. It has a common house with shared features: a place to gather, cook, and use water-efficient showers. Human wastes will be converted to biogas for cooking and fertilizer for a small garden at the edge of the property. Steven is excited that the project will build local expertise in laying foundations, pouring concrete, framing doors, and pounding rammed earth walls into place.

At a slightly larger scale is a cooperative-style community under construction at the edge of Cindy and Steven’s permaculture garden and orchard. “We’ll market this European/American inspired village concept (“cohousing”) to people who love gardening, the countryside, and watching birds – people who will likely have sufficient funds to take an occasional meal in a public restaurant. These new Memel residents – some in their retirement years – will be looking for something to do, and they may well volunteer for civic-type activities that will make Memel and Zamani a better place.”

He summarizes, “Low-income housing projects built by the federal government are commendable but they don’t really meet the overall need, in my opinion. They reflect much that’s gone wrong throughout the world: they’re conventional, impersonal structures built by the book. They don’t create a sense of community or a feeling of self-reliance, and they aren’t nearly as resource efficient as these new homes will be. The materials for these standardized homes have to be trucked in from distant cities, but in contrast much of the material for our houses comes right out of the ground.”

The Empowerment of Play
Several years ago, Cindy was watching a cricket game on TV and commented that it was too bad the black girls at Memel Primary School couldn’t play sports. Their free time was mostly spent cooking at home (typically a one-bedroom, dirt-floored hut shared with a single mother or grandmother) getting water or firewood, and roaming the streets. “I knew if could help them, I could help the whole community.” She launched a programme called SheWinS – Sports Helping to Empower Women in South Africa – that’s changing lives and moving the town further away from apartheid. The programme links young, energetic mentors (largely from the U.S.) with the young students, offering role models and athletic coaches. Says the school’s headmaster, Johann Du Toit, “The girls in the SheWinS programme came to life in the classroom: they were more alert, more likely to participate, they did better on exams, and just seemed more confident and happy.” The most poignant indicator of the girls’ personal development may be the recent absence of pregnancies among sixth and seventh graders.

 

The Currency of Nature

For the most part, mothers want us to be happy, right? When they used to tell us, “Go outside and play,” it wasn’t just because they were sick of us, but (also) because the components of nature and the way they fit together are the most instructive and enjoyable curriculum on the planet, no tuition necessary. These days, though, parents aren’t as likely to urge their kids to go outside. Unfortunately, both kids and adults often perceive “outside” as a place that lacks stimulation and is also dangerous.

The engineered planning of towns and cities often reduces nature to concrete water channels, manicured petunia beds, and rectangular soccer fields, removing the rough, wildish edges that kids like the best. Many American schools have reduced or eliminated outdoor time, even as the epidemic of childhood obesity spreads. In fact, as Richard Louv points out in Last Child in the Woods, education boards in a dozen or more states have “outlawed” recess because they consider it less important than national test rankings, it presents perceived liability issues, and it has the potential for violence on the playground. On some school playgrounds that do allow outdoor play, signs read, “No Running!” Tracking the origins of what he calls “nature-deficit disorder,” Louv has observed many other obstacles to natural play, including municipal and homeowner association laws. For example, building codes prohibit or inhibit the construction of tree houses in some towns, some cities forbid climbing on trees in parks, and many of the country’s HOAs (there are now nearly a quarter of a million) frown on basketball hoops and skateboard ramps in driveways.

Add to these restrictions the specters of “stranger danger,” DUI-heavy traffic, and “ecophobia” (the fear of spiders, skin cancer, mosquitoes, snakes, Lyme disease, and poison ivy) and you’ve trained kids to retreat indoors to their video games, TVs, and computer screens. My friend Marie held her ground when her son kept asking for the latest video games: He could only play games that didn’t involve killing, and he had to buy them with his own money. But this teenager knew how to play more than video games; he did a research paper at school on violence in video games, and thus, he convinced her, had no choice but to do the research….

Richard Louv cites a study documenting that in 2003, the average American devoted 327 more hours to electronic media than in 1987. But Louv asks a probing question—very relevant to the theme of this post: “What drives us to virtual reality?” He believes that lack of time and the changing patterns of our cities and towns are key reasons, but that fear—a spell being cast by the news media—is the main reason.3

And I believe there’s still more to it: kids (and adults) don’t value or understand nature because it’s not an action-packed commodity sought after by their peers. Nature is subtle, not in-your-face like virtual reality, and we need to be taught to slow down and appreciate its subtleties and interconnections. We need mentors who can lead us back to nature. Louv interviewed a camp counselor who was awakened by an inner-city girl when she had to go to the bathroom. “We stepped outside the tent and she looked up. She gasped and grabbed my leg. She had never seen the stars before. From that moment on, she was a changed person. She saw everything, like a camouflaged lizard that everyone else skipped over. She used her senses. She was awake!”

Lost Child in the Woods, Found

When I was four or five, I wandered with a young friend into the woods near our house. My recollections of that distant morning include splotches of bright sunlight projected through the trees onto the dark forest floor, the earthy fragrance of leaves and rich Illinois soil, and knowing what it must feel like to be a butterfly. We fluttered farther and farther away from our yards, clueless that back home our moms were beginning to panic. After an hour or more of frantic searching, someone drove to the other side of the forest and found us near the highway, still in the throes of discovery and exploration. I seem to remember that everyone was very agitated, insisting that we’d gotten lost and could have been killed! But we didn’t see it that way. All we had lost was a sense of time, and a sense of imposed boundaries.

About fifty years later, I experienced a similar, unbounded feeling in a Costa Rican rainforest north of San José. I’ve always thought of myself as a nature guy—a backpacker and fanatical gardener who’s learned about the cycles and meaning of nature by observing them directly—on switch-backed mountain trails or in rich garden beds teeming with vegetables. But I wasn’t prepared for what I encountered at Rara Avis, a biological reserve that is true, undeveloped wilderness. I was like that delighted young preschooler again, fluttering into the woods in search of anything. My girlfriend had gone home and I stayed in a casita without electricity for eight days by myself, drifting further and further from the pace of life back home, where the president was sending the first troops to Iraq.

The story of that experience begins with a rigorous three-hour, tractor-drawn wagon ride over boulders and potholes, the exact opposite of “luxurious” (probably a little like having a baby in an earthquake). But the other travelers and I somehow survive it, and within minutes of arriving near Waterfall Lodge and its outlying casitas, the forest begins to speak to us! A tiny, strawberry poison-dart frog hops across the trail; his bright red skin contains toxins so strong that he has no predators. He just hangs out in his territory—he needs no more than 100 square feet—and waits for females to come to him. What a life!

A little farther up the trail, a boa constrictor wraps around the trunk of a small tree, in no hurry to get out of our way. Instead she relies on her camouflage, ability to constrict, and (maybe) trust in humanity. A regiment of leaf-cutter ants ascends the trunk of a 100-foot-tall tree to prune its leaves, increasing by a third the light that reaches the forest floor. The leaf fragments they bring back (like surfers carrying bright green surfboards) are composted underground to fertilize the fungus crop they find so tasty—an operation that puts nutrients back into the soil. En route, some ants become snacks for birds and other insects, so their niche provides several basic resources the rainforest needs—sun, soil, and food. Thousands of other species make similar contributions, weaving the rainforest together like a tapestry. Creeping over the forest floor toward the shadows is a Monstera vine, which “knows” that by climbing the tallest trees that cast the darkest shadows, it will ultimately bask in full sunlight.

Rara Avis is like a 2,500-acre lungful of fresh air—a masterpiece of biological abundance that provides undisturbed habitat for 362 different species of birds! Twenty different species of orchid were recently counted on a single fallen tree. In a way, this virgin parcel of land is a living self-portrait—the rainforest is painting itself in the bold colors and shadowy nuances of its many species; for example, the red, green, yellow, orange, turquoise, and black of a keel-billed toucan (called a “flying banana” by another traveler); the dark, iridescent blue of a morpho butterfly; and the dappled red of a stained-glass palm.

This virgin parcel of land is a living self-portrait—the rainforest is painting itself in the bold colors and shadowy nuances of its many species.

I walk down to dinner one evening in the foggy twilight and my flashlight beam falls on the orange and black stripes of a coral snake. I’m startled, knowing she’s poisonous, but fascinated that she’s slithered into my life. As I bend closer to get a better look, she retracts from the path into the bushes, like the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the Wicked Witch’s striped sock melts away under the house that smashed her. With the hair on the back of my neck still bristling, I step gingerly from one stepping stone to another, watching the miniature headlights of fireflies hovering in the descending darkness, lit only by a rising crescent moon.

After dinner in the big log cabana, biologist Amanda Neill explains why she puts her energy into studying a single species of rainforest flower: the bright red gurania, or jungle cucumber. “Think what might happen if the taxonomists mistakenly lump two similar species together,” she says. “We might assume that there are plenty of these—don’t worry about saving their habitat—when really there are only a few of each species left, that have traveled a billion years to get here.”

The sense of ecological urgency in this blond-haired thirty-year-old woman mixes well with her sense of delight. Even in her narrow niche of study, she’s traveled widely—to Ecuador, Belize, Peru, now Costa Rica—to study the taxonomy and ecology of her focus species. In effect, she’s found her own symbiotic niche in the rainforest, trading her skills at cataloging and protecting the gurania for the privilege of living a month at a time under the lush, protective canopy of the rainforest.

That night, when the cicadas, tree frogs, trogons, owls, howler monkeys, and hundreds of other species all join the chorus, the forest sounds like a smoothly running factory—Taca, taca, taca… sissit, sissit…. Given that the mission of each call is to be heard among a symphony of other calls, there are all varieties of pitch and syncopation—creating an incredibly rich and complex symphony. Over the eons, rainforest species don different colors and improvise different shapes so all nutrients will be used, and all niches occupied. (They utilize information and design rather than superfluous resources, an important lesson for our civilization.) In the morning I’m awakened by a cuckoo clock that turns out to be a bird with a very complex, mechanical-sounding call. I count the hours, groggily, but even in half-sleep, I know it can’t be thirteen o’clock already….

Waking Up in the Rainforest

On a remote jungle trail toward the end of my retreat, I’m dressed only in shorts and rubber boots. I’ve taken off my t-shirt to feel the rainforest on my skin, despite the warnings that deadly fer-de-lance snakes could strike from overhead branches and vines. I’m thinking, “Remember this moment. Remember the way you feel, right now, as howler monkeys growl like lions way off in the distance, and the sun filters through the dense foliage onto your stupefied, grateful face.”

Sure, we can read about the rainforest and see it on TV, but until we spend quality time there, letting ourselves slow down, we don’t really grasp what tropical biology is all about. It struck me on that Costa Rican rainforest retreat that we overconsuming humans need to somehow absorb these colors, this bold brilliance, into our hearts, and revalue nature’s wealth all over the planet. There’s so much more to life than the gray of concrete and the drab green of paper currency! My feeling is that until we acknowledge the butterfly, orchid, rose, maple, and wisteria colors inside each of us, we can’t feel truly at home in ourselves. We can’t see the deficiencies of our economic system clearly enough—that it isn’t programmed to preserve nature, or to optimize human potential. Until we launch an unwavering mission to Planet Earth, we’ll keep postponing the homecoming until there’s not much left to come home to. In that rainforest, I saw and felt complexity-in-balance, and realized how far out of balance our industrial complexity is—infantile and clunky by comparison, with only thousands of years of experience as opposed to billions. Rather than cooperating to make the overall system sustainable, our industrial species compete to attain their own, narrowly defined goals. The name Rara Avis comes from a medieval poem containing the phrase “Rara avis in terris.” The phrase means, literally, “a rare bird in the world”—or figuratively, something new and fresh happening in human civilization. And so there is!

Pitchfork Politics, New-Age Style

In these recent decades of flash floods, cracked earth and county-size forest fires, we small-scale farmers and gardeners are charring like cherry pies in an oven of political and cultural indecision. We’re burning up out here! Unlike throngs of Americans who spend much of their time in the climate-controlled indoors, we hands-on growers can directly feel climate change happening, in our parched skins and dehydrated sinuses. We watch crops that used to thrive wilt to chicken feed and compost. We may not have large, air-conditioned tractors, but many of us do have small greenhouses and cold frames, and we know full well how the “greenhouse effect” works: light comes through the glass but heat can’t get back out, and needs to be vented. It’s elementary that the gases humans generate in energy and food production trap heat the same way. The difference is that there’s no way to vent heat build-up caused by carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide emissions.

Among the growing number of people who acknowledge the reality of physics, many assume that coal-fired power plants, monstermobiles, and poorly-insulated buildings are the main culprits. Yet, recent data indicate that the food system as a sector is the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Livestock production alone contributes 18%, and other agricultural practices such as fertilizer production and use, irrigation, and the operation of farm machinery contribute at least another eight percent. Land use is huge, too: when forests are cut or burned down they immediately release greenhouse gases, and are no longer there to absorb carbon dioxide. The impacts of industrialized agriculture don’t stop on our farms and ranches, though. In fact, the growing of food accounts for only a fifth of the energy used to bring food to our tables. The other four-fifths are used to move, process, package, sell, store, preserve and prepare food. As environmentalist Lester Brown phrases it, the refrigerator emits far more carbon dioxide than the tractor.

Local, small-scale agriculture can significantly reduce each of these sources. Says veteran gardener and researcher John Jeavons, “We’re rediscovering the scientific principles of millennia-old farming systems, and over the years we’ve demonstrated how to grow food with 67% to 88% less water; 50% to 100% less fertilizer; and 99% less energy than commercial agriculture – producing two to six times more food per unit of land.” An increase in small-scale growing can play a key role in preventing climate change. Agriculture is quintessentially solar-powered and can lead the way to a future powered largely by renewable energy. Why use up resources we have less and less of when we can instead use what we have more of – knowledgeable people, anxious to be in contact with nature. Here’s how local, “new age” farming can help prevent the world from becoming a steamy, unvented greenhouse:

• Organic, low-tech farming and gardening puts more carbon-rich compost into the soil, storing carbon dioxide rather than releasing it.
• Small-scale methods are more mindful of the benefits of carbon-storing crops such as off-season cover crops like clover and winter rye, as well as erosion-reducing forests and grasslands.
• New age farmers produce meat with more climate-friendly methods than the rest of the greenhouse-gassy meat industry, including a higher percentage of range-fed animals. (Methane and nitrous oxide are many times more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide, a primary reason why the global increase in meat consumption is a global warming nightmare.)

Benefits of Local, Small-scale Growing

• Reduce greenhouse gas emissions related to transportation and processing. (A typical food item travels up to 2,500 miles from farm to plate—25 percent farther than most food traveled in 1980.)

• Reduces the need for packaging and processing, because it’s fresh.

• Provides healthy produce that can be picked at its peak, providing much better flavor.

• Reconnects people with their communities and the land their food comes from.

• Eating locally recirculates 90 to 100 percent of the money spent in the local economy.

• Provides accountability – the closer we are to where our food comes from, the more control we have over how it is grown.

The good news is that a new kind of food pyramid is emerging, centered on regional food webs. In the last decade, the total number of farms in the U.S. has grown by four per cent, and at least 75,000 of them are small farms meeting a demand for fresh, organic, and locally-grown food. More than four thousand farmers markets (including some in mobile buses!) have sprung up in recent years, along with Community Supported Agriculture networks (that arrange “subscriptions” to a local farm’s output), community gardens, farm-to-school lunch programs, cooperative harvesting exchanges, gardening curricula in all levels of school, citizen Food Policy Councils, backyard chicken coops, and municipal composting systems.

Citizen-consumers support climate friendly farming when they help reverse two key dietary trends of the past half-century – fossil-fueled food and relentless increases in meat consumption. As our personal and national dietary habits change, we might discourage an upward trend in developing countries like India and China, since meat eating is largely about keeping up with Joneses like us. We also send a clear signal to the world’s farmers that we value the preservation of a stable climate, one of our most precious, commonly shared assets. Our numbers are swelling even faster than the Arctic is melting. It’s time for a non-violent, civilly-disobedient pitchfork revolution!

The Anthropology of Food, Part 4

Why Organic Food is Worth the Price

Americans undervalue organic food both on the table and on the farm, for similar reasons. As a culture, we don’t yet recognize the difference in quality between organic and conventional food; between conventional and organic growing. For example, we don’t recognize collectively that it’s more accurate to define the word “organic” by what it is, rather than what it isn’t. True, certified organic means that toxic chemicals and fossil fuel-based fertilizers are not used, but the only way farmers can make that kind of agriculture work is by operating their farms as living systems: building the soil with organic, once-living material – which provides fertility, water retention, disease resistance, and good drainage all at the same time. Average levels of nearly a dozen nutrients are 25% higher in organic produce.

Rotation of crops prevents disease and maintains fertility; using cover crops like alfalfa pulls free nitrogen right out of the air. Recycling “wastes” like manure, crop residues, and by-products of regional industries, such as coffee roasters or fruit canneries makes full use of existing resources. This information-rich way of farming provides habitat for wildlife (which reciprocate with natural pest control); conserves water and helps preserve family farms in rural and metro-edge communities.

The fact that average levels of nearly a dozen nutrients are 25% higher in organic produce translates to greater calmness, endurance, mobility, allergy-resistance, sharper senses, and a better sex life in the daily lives of consumers – a higher quality of life, not just prevention of heart disease or cancer. Those who associate organic food with astrology or hippies may not be aware that the White House chef has routinely served organic food to the Clintons, the Bushes, and now the Obamas. In fact, the world’s finest chefs prefer organic produce because its taste is superior. The use of powdered fertilizers causes crops to take up more water, diluting the taste. In addition, conventional produce has fewer of the enzymes and minerals that enhance flavor.

Since only two percent of the country’s population now lives on a farm, we don’t think of ourselves as having a direct role in farming, yet we each eat an average of a ton of food every year. Farms and ranches still cover more than half our land, and consume three-fourths of our water and 70% percent of our antibiotics. “If you eat, drink, or pay taxes; or care about the economy, the environment, or our global reputation, what happens on farms is a central if unseen part of your life,” says Michael Pollan. If this so, what kind of farm do you want?


Benefits of Organic Growing and Eating

Protects the health of children. University of Washington researchers analyzed urine samples of 110 preschoolers, only one of whom had no measurable level of pesticides. That one child’s parents ate exclusively organic food and didn’t use pesticides in their home or lawn. EPA-documented effects in children of exposure to certain pesticides include poorer growth and impact on neurodevelopment.

Conserves energy used on farms. Organic farming produces the same yields of corn and soybeans as does conventional farming, but uses 30 percent less energy, a 22-year farming trial study concludes.

Promotes Biodiversity on and around farms. Organic farming preserves natural habitat in hedgerows, crop diversity, ponds, and forests, while conventional farming typically uses methods (mono-cropping and pesticides) that reduce biodiversity. Beneficial insects such as bees flourish on organic farms, but often suffer from “colony collapse” on conventional farms.

Supports an Emerging Industry with a smaller Footprint. Organic methods of growing crops generate fewer greenhouse emissions, both because energy-intensive fertilizers and pesticides are not used and because organic soil sequesters carbon dioxide.

Better Flavor, More Healthy Nutrients per pound. Many studies give strong evidence that produce grown organically promotes non-aggressive behavior in schools and prisons and increases performance on academic exams – largely because of increased nutrient density.

What if you had a way of prioritizing which organic products to buy? It seems logical to choose organic for the foods you eat the most, as well as for the produce that is sprayed most heavily. Based on extensive analysis of federal pesticide test results, the Environmental Working Group recommends opting for organic with these foods:

Dairy products: Milk, yogurt and cheese are considered healthy bone-strengtheners, especially for children, but the additions of hormones and antibiotics undermine the simple goodness of commercial dairy products.

Meat (including poultry and eggs): Animal products can contain antibiotics, hormones and even heavy metals like arsenic that is used to prompt an animal’s rapid growth.

Ketchup: Even besides the pesticide issue, research has shown organic ketchup has nearly double the good-for-you antioxidants of conventional ketchup.

Coffee: Conventional coffee farming relies heavily on pesticide use and contributes to deforestation around the globe.

THE DIRTY DOZEN (MOST HEAVILY SPRAYED)

 

  • Apples
  • Cherries
  • Grapes, imported
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Raspberries
  • Strawberries

 

 

  • Bell peppers
  • Celery
  • Potatoes
  • Spinach

 

Source: Environmental Working Group http://www.ewg.org/node/27777

Why not eat what our bodies are designed to eat? For example, although our ancestors hunted and ate far leaner animals than we do — species closer to modern deer and elk than the typical cow – it’s fashionable these days for meat to be fatty and tender, as if the goal of eating was heart disease.

 

The Anthropology of Food, Part 3

Making Regional Food Webs Work

Old Perspective: Large companies like Kraft, Tyson, Conagra, Cargill, and Nestle have given us so much variety, so many convenient choices in all seasons of the year. Their huge scales of operation have enabled prices to remain affordable. This is the good life!

New Perspective: The food-industrial complex has made a mess of the American diet, which in turn has spread around the world. Corporate control of the growing and marketing of food has resulted in the loss of health, crop and animal diversity, family farms, cultural traditions, soil, and trust. The best way to counter-balance corporate dominance is for communities, counties, and states to strengthen their regional food webs.

Corporations have bought out more than 600,000 U.S. farms since the 1960s, and now just four huge companies pack 84 percent of beef and crush 80 percent of soybeans.
The mantra we hear time and again is that consumers vote with their dollars. True, but to express civic convictions in dollars alone is to underestimate our power to create a sustainable food system. We’re far more than consumers, we’re also school board members and concerned parents, farmers, scientists, shareholders and employees in food companies, and voters who influence political decisions. Without any extra effort, our food choices influence our families and friends, creating cultural consensus and market demand. While some might insist that corporate farming is the only efficient way to grow food, they may not be aware that a primary reason why industrial food is so cheap is that it receives heavy subsidies from taxpayers for commodity crops like corn and wheat, while fruit and vegetable growers using sustainable practices get nothing. Consolidation in the food industry has reached freakish proportions: in the U.S. and globally. Corporations have bought out more than 600,000 U.S. farms since the 1960s, and now just four huge companies pack 84 percent of beef and crush 80 percent of soybeans. Corporations produce 98 percent of poultry; 2 percent of farms produce 50 percent of all agricultural products in the country. As corporate control of the food industry increased, dietary and crop diversity also decreased: Iceberg lettuce, frozen and fried potatoes, potato chips and canned tomatoes now make up almost half of the vegetable consumption in the U.S., and a mere four crops account for two-thirds of what we eat.

Cooperation

 

When the size and marketing clout of corporate farms threatened Wisconsin’s small family farms, growers banded together to create a market niche for organic food. From its original membership of seven farmers, the cooperative Organic Valley has grown to more than 1,200 family farms across the nation, making it the largest organic farmer-owned cooperative in North America. Recognizing the need for a new generation of farmers to provide locally grown food, some cities sponsor farmer training programs like Bellingham, Washington’s “Food to Bank On” project, which connects beginning sustainable farms with training, mentors & market support. Area food banks have received $50,000 in fresh produce from these farmers since the programs’ inception in 2003.

Civic response to the corporate dominance of agriculture has been ineffective, but it has now found its center of gravity: re-localization. Like the organic food movement, local food has quickly come into America’s mainstream, promoted in great detail by the likes of Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food) and Gary Nabhan (Coming Home to Eat). A survey of more than 1,200 chefs, many employed by chain restaurants or large food companies, identified locally grown food to be one of the hottest food trends in the country. Entrepreneurs such as Three Stone Hearth in Berkeley, California are stepping into the niche, providing customers with home delivery of gourmet meals crafted with local produce. A company called Edible Communities recently launched a network of thirty-three region-specific “Edible” magazines (e.g., Edible Atlanta) to promote local foods and flavors in the different locations. Clearly, many Americans want flavorful food with a face.

The challenge is finding mechanisms to connect farms directly with markets and people. A small employee- and farmer-owned company in Portland, Oregon brokers food from local farms to supermarkets. This is typically a difficult sell, since supermarkets prefer year-round deliveries of uniform, flawless produce, in large and reliable quantities. Organically Grown Company became a persuasive agent, convincing farmers to stagger crops; purchasing back-up supplies from warmer locations in Oregon and California; and ensuring that all deliveries are attractively presented. So successful have their efforts been that the company now has a staff of 160. Similarly, geographical diversity of the Rainbow Farming Cooperative – about 300 family farms in Wisconsin, Michigan, Northern Illinois, and the South – makes produce available year-round.

Cleveland, Ohio’s revitalization vision is based in part on urban agriculture. The city’s food policy council (FPC), spearheaded by citizen activists, teamed up with city councilor Joe Cimperman, a strong supporter of urban farming because it’s “good for the economy, nutrition, health, and public safety.” The combined efforts of City Council and the FPC are pursuing zoning changes that will permit garden plots of one acre or more and also allow chicken raising and beekeeping.

Farmers Markets and Farm to School programs are two of the most visible examples of how regional food webs can be woven. In just three decades, close to 5,000 farmers markets have become local traditions in America’s towns and cities. The Greenmarket system in New York City has the country’s largest network, with a centerpiece market in Union Square and about sixty others in the city, including Harlem, the South Bronx, and Bedford-Stuyvesant, where blight has often left residents in urban food deserts that have no supermarkets and shops. A pilot project gives food stamp users greater access to healthy food, because they use food stamps at farmers markets.

Several variables have converged to bring Farm-to-School projects into the mainstream: new federal and state regulations with nutritional requirements for schools, an epidemic of obesity among students, generous grants from various foundations, and pioneering efforts in cities like Berkeley, California. Berkeley’s Unified School District approved a school lunch program that delivers “farm to fork” education about planting, growing, and biology – in addition to instilling healthy eating habits that can last a lifetime. Students in over 2,000 school districts in forty states are eating farm-fresh food for school lunch or breakfast. Overall, schools report a 3 to 16 percent increase in participation in school meals when farm-fresh food is served. Many benefits besides better health for the students result from programs like these: teachers learn to incorporate food and agriculture into their curricula; parents change their shopping and cooking patterns; and food service staff gain knowledge and interest in local food preparation.

A local food web is more resilient, and able to prevent large- scale catastrophe. “When a single factory is grinding 20 million hamburger patties in a week or washing 25 million servings of salad, a single terrorist armed with a canister of toxins can, at a stroke, poison millions,” writes Michael Pollan. “Such a system is even more susceptible to accidental contamination: the bigger and more global the trade in food, the more vulnerable the system is. The best way to protect our food system against such threats is to decentralize it.”

Benefits of a Regional Food Web

  • Helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy use. (A typical food item travels up to 2,500 miles from farm to plate—25 percent farther than most food traveled in 1980.)
  • Reduces the need for packaging and processing.
  • Provides healthy produce that can be picked at its peak, providing much better flavor.
  • Reconnects people with their communities and the land their food comes from.
  • Eating local keeps 90 percent to 100 percent of the money you spend in your town.
  • Provides accountability – the closer you are to where your food comes from, the more control you will have over how it is grown.

How can individuals help weave a local food web?

  • Shop at local farmers markets
  • Support farm-to-school programs, crop gleaning programs, and municipal composting to reuse local nutrients
  • Reduce food waste in households, restaurants, and supermarkets
  • Organize or participate in a food policy council, in which citizens help direct local food decisions
  • Join a Community supported Agriculture (CSA) program, in which participants “subscribe” to produce grown by a local farmer
  • Start a community garden, or put in a garden in your yard.

The Anthropology of Food, Part 2

Shopping for Change or More of the Same?

At the supermarket we make choices based not just on price, but relationships, associations, emotions, memories, identity, and values. Using multi-focus lenses, we fill our shopping carts with choices we hope are trustworthy, safe, comfortable, unique, healthy, green, and cheap – but not too cheap. (Wouldn’t hunting and gathering be easier?) We make many of these decisions quickly as we nervously consult our watches, and unfortunately, the food Americans bring home often results in obesity and diet-related diseases such as diabetes and heart failure. The processed foods that now fill supermarket shelves are low in water and fiber (making them easier to ship) but packed with added fat and sugar, making them less filling, more fattening. Author and activist Bill McKibben observes, “The supermarket crammed with its thousands of brightly packaged offerings is a mirage: if you could wave a magic wand and break everything down into its constituent ingredients, a pool of high-fructose corn syrup would fill half the store.”

In the book “Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy,” marketing expert Martin Lindstrom’s research sheds much light on the convoluted, interconnected thoughts that perc in our brains as we make choices. Standing in front of the peanut butter display, Lindstrom’s shopper thinks,

 

“I associate Skippy with childhood…it’s been around forever, so I feel it’s trustworthy…but isn’t it laden with sugar and other preservatives I shouldn’t be eating…Same goes for Peter Pan, plus the name is so childish. And I’m not buying that generic brand. It costs 30 cents less, which makes me suspicious. In my experience, you get what you pay for…The organic stuff? Tasteless, the few times I had it… always needs salt, too… Jif…what’s that old advertising slogan of theirs: “Choosy Mothers Choose Jif”…Well I am a fairly discriminating person…”

How can we escape this brightly-packaged parade of industrial food that makes that makes our minds chatter? The only thing that will really work is a cultural movement that demands changes in what the food industry provides and how they provide it. Processed food is artificially cheap right now because energy has been cheap, and because our tax dollars subsidize the growing of crops like wheat, corn and soybeans – primary ingredients in “industrial” food. As a society, we don’t charge ourselves for the many environmental and health side effects of food. We allocate less of our household budget to food than we ever have before, and we don’t, as a nation, allocate enough capital to mentor new farmers.

The truth is that we need to spend more of our household budget for food, not less.

The truth is that we need to spend more of our household budget for food, not less. By rearranging both our household and national expenditures, we should give a higher priority to fresh, healthy food and a lower priority to electronic gadgets, mall booty, cars, lawns, and vacations. Our overall expenses don’t have to go up, they just need to be realigned with our changing values. By choosing higher quality food and better ways of growing it, we also begin to reshape the American culture.

In the meantime, here we are in the supermarket aisles, making the best choices we can. Though brightly colored promises on the boxes and packages (“all natural!” “low-fat!” “high in Omega 3!”) seem a little overwhelming, with patience and peer support, we can learn what these slogans really mean, step by step. For example, “free-range” egg-laying hens are typically out of cages but inside barns or warehouses. They have some outdoor access, but how much is not specified, and there is no third-party quality control. A higher level of quality assurance for eggs is “USDA Certified Organic,” which guarantees not only outdoor access, but also an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides.

Food labels like these are an agreement, an understanding, between producer and consumer, for a certain level of quality; a certain set of core values. The labels not only help the buyer but also guide the grower, holding production standards higher. Rather than remaining Lone Rangers for truth, justice and quality in food, many Americans are now opting to let Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s or the local food co-op prescreen food products for key traits like fair trade, organic, local, and ecological sensitivity. After learning what brands they prefer, smart shoppers also learn which conventional supermarkets carry those products, often at slightly lower prices. (And they learn to request those products from conventional store managers.) Step by step, they are changing not only the household diet, but also America’s diet.

“You shouldn’t need a Ph.D. in nutritional biochemistry to go supermarket shopping,” says David Katz of the Yale Prevention Research Center, who wants to bring “traffic light” labeling system to the U.S. “The index, with green, yellow, or red labels, should take into account the quantity of calories, beneficial nutrients, and potentially harmful nutrients such as trans fat, in a serving of any given food. Why shouldn’t even dummies wind up with a shopping cart filled with the good stuff?”

The eatingwell.com website concurs with Katz that label reading should be easier, but maintains that a lot of important nutritional information is already on the labels, if you know how to scan them. Keeping it simple, they suggest:

 

Limit Products With:

Saturated fat: As low as possible; less than five grams per serving.

Trans fat: should be zero. (Hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils means trans fats).

Sodium: As low as possible. The FDA allows a “healthy” label on foods with less than 480 mg/serving for entrees, less than 360 mg for all other foods.

High fructose corn syrup: A cheap form of highly concentrated sugar (words ending in “ose” are pseudonyms for sugar).

“Enriched” or “wheat” flour (aliases for “white”) Choose whole-wheat flour instead.

Choose Products With:

The shortest possible ingredient list.

 

Fiber: Three or more grams per serving.

Whole grains: Preferably first or second in the ingredients list.

“Liquid” or “high-oleic” vegetable oils: Heart-healthy unsaturated fats

Fruits and vegetables: Dried or fresh, in whole form.