30 April 2008

Last Chance...

... to make me spend $100. That's right, today is the last day to force me to make good on my promise to match the first $100 given to reforestation. If you give $100 to plant 100 trees through The Nature Conservancy by the end of April, meaning 11:59 p.m. EDT, I will match it.

Think about it a moment....

Yes, someone who spends only $15 can force me to spend $100, or fifteen of you out there, you few that read this electronic rag, can gang up on me and do it for a buck a piece. In fact, I have a friend who has handed me $1 to put us over the top when we get to 99, and so it will take only 14. How good a deal is that?

Then I shall be 20% of the way to my long term goal. If I succeed, with your help of course, it is sobering that even 1000 trees is less than half the carbon offset I need to equal what my house alone adds to the atmosphere. By my calculation , I would need to plant 2500 trees a year to offset all the carbon from my house. At $1 a tree that means $2500 a year.

When you start measuring the unmeasured costs of modern life (and carbon is only one measure. What about garbage, clean water, paper, and so on?) it is clear to me that our many conveniences are far more expensive that we realize.

For example, I love fresh strawberries, and this time of year they are abundant in the store. But these are California berries, trucked in, which means diesel fuel, which means pollutants. Next consider that most are picked by immigrants, lots of them undocumented, which is why they are so inexpensive because the cost of shipping is less than the cost of paying the workers so little.

When you take the time to look at the things that are apparently so cheap, the cost is easy to see. But we generally do not want to see the cost because then we either have to change our behavior or accept the guilt. Neither of those are All American traits.

We've got a tough road ahead, I think. Why not make it a shady one and buy a tree?

22 April 2008

Read It, Then Do Something...

... like plant a tree?


This week's NYTimes magazine is a keeper, about our Carbon Future as it were, with excellent work by Steven Leavitt and Michael Pollan. I gotta find a way to bring Pollan to my town. His stuff about the food-industrial complex always knocks me sideways. You don't have to read the whole book to get his point. Just read what he wrote in the Magazine.

Here is a citation:
Whatever we can do as individuals to change the way we live at this suddenly very late date does seem utterly inadequate to the challenge. It’s hard to argue with Michael Specter, in a recent New Yorker piece on carbon footprints, when he says: “Personal choices, no matter how virtuous, cannot do enough. It will also take laws and money.” So it will. Yet it is no less accurate or hardheaded to say that laws and money cannot do enough, either; that it will also take profound changes in the way we live. Why? Because the climate-change crisis is at its very bottom a crisis of lifestyle — of character, even. The Big Problem is nothing more or less than the sum total of countless little everyday choices, most of them made by us (consumer spending represents 70 percent of our economy), and most of the rest of them made in the name of our needs and desires and preferences.
Go to http://www.nytimes.com/ and scroll down to the 'most popular' box. Click on "Why Bother," register to read it. Read it.

If you do, then tell me you are not persuaded that you, yes you with your eyes on the screen, one of the scarcely two score who read this thing, do not agree that you have a job to do. And when you despair of being able to do it, then tell me this is not what religious communities exist to do.

have A Great Earth Day

19 April 2008

A Billy Pilgrim Moment

Twenty years ago, actually more, I made my first trip to San Francisco. Saying that is shocking, as the memory does not feel so old. If Old Isaac Watts is right about time being an ever rolling stream, the current is moving faster than I realized. Anyway, that first trip was on business but I booked an extra day ahead so I could look around.

One of the places I went was to Cliff House, a restaurant perched on a cliff overlooking what is called Seal Rocks. My wife loves seals, so I went there in her honor (I was alone on the trip though.) The House has a deck for watching the seals along with the restaurant and I remember quite vividly watching the seals as orcas swam nearby. Not a good thing for the seals as orcas eat them. This all takes place scant yards from a long beach which is cheek by jowl to the city. I was mesmerized.

So I resolved to go back, and did, as Route 1, the PCH, goes right up alongside the beach. The day was the first truly sunny warm day for a while, and it was Sunday, so I had to park some way down from Cliff house, but the weather was easy and the walk up the hill more than bearable. While I have been back to SF twice since that first visit, it had nonetheless been some years and so a wave of recognition came as I inhaled the air. There is something distinct about the smell of SF, its combination of fish, salt, pine, redwood, people, and plants that instantly erased the years between each visit. I get the same sensation in New York City or Austin, which also have unique smells.

My sense of smell has attenuated much over the last ten years. The natural effect of age no doubt, and in some ways a blessing. My appetite is not as easily roused now, for example, so I am not as likely to eat spontaneously. My wife says she has never had an acute sense of smell and she has never been a lusty eater.

The unpleasant aromas of life are less so as well, and yet there is nothing like a smell to capture a memory, and memory in the deepest sense of not just what I saw or felt emotionally but what my body sensed and that moment in time. Aromas are the royal road of consciousness.

My lunch at the newly and very fashionable restaurant in the old Cliff House was at the zinc bar, a plate of Dungeness crab cakes and a glass of beer. A young couple sat to either side of me – one male one mixed. The former were from Europe but I could not make out the language. The latter were local. All were young, horribly young. My waiter was practiced at spreading the linen napkin triangularly on the bar, and the popovers were hot and fattening. I ate all three eagerly.

Early that morning I had left Marina and found myself riding through agricultural lands along Half Moon Bay. The drive was prosaic as it the region was well built and therefore more about houses and businesses and the sprawly stuff you can find anywhere. This paradise is irresistible and so it is well developed.

South of SF proper, on steep hills, are cookie cutter houses that supposedly inspired Malvina Reynolds song about “little houses.” If untrue it makes sense, and proves that even in sight of the great Pacific, one can be small minded and self absorbed.

I had to drive through town, which was fun, seeing the sunny, quasi Italian ambience of working class SF, which is now impossibly expensive to buy. I turned north and passed through Golden Gate Park before crossing the exquisite Golden Gate Bridge, which appears without warning and almost catapults you across the promontory. You can’t really enjoy ride, it being so full of traffic going at a fierce clip, but a sensation remains of doing it, and of the Marin headlands on the other side, and how long it took to get beyond the northern satellites of SF, Susalito and Tiburon and their wannabee neighbors before being able to reclaim Route 1 and my real destination for the day – Muir Woods.

16 April 2008

"Oh, It's Paisley"

Heading north, crawling up from Big Sur, I encounter more and more cars, lots of sporty things, convertibles, weekenders as it is Saturday, coming south. Carmel and Monterey are getting closer.

This makes me sad, which is odd as Monterey is one of the jewels of the coast. It is the old Spanish capital of northern California, sits on a spectacular peninsula that juts north like a fortified redoubt, no doubt a reason for its being selected to serve. The husband of a high school friend of ours was a career army officer, and regaled us with stories of his posting to Monterey to learn Italian prior to going to Vicenza. Part of my desire to come here was his glowing memory of the place.

But coming into the area after two days of splendid near isolation, it was a letdown. The road widened, the traffic thickened, the sort of roadside life that could be anywhere slowly returned so that traffic lights and shopping centers and housing developments were the landscape I saw. True, the trees became more lush and green, a green that verged toward dark blue or even black compared to the pale and yellow hints of the sere coast I had watched for the last two days.

Famous Carmel was all but invisible from the highway, signs pointing me to the beach reminded me it was still somewhere near by. My guidebook recommended taking scenic Seventeen Mile Drive which snakes through the golf course studded world of lower Monterey and upper Carmel (including famed Pebble Beach).
I do not play. Where do people find the time? But I remember a friend from a fifteen years ago who explained the allure of the game. “In tennis or other competitive sports you are so busy playing you can never stop and enjoy what you do. But in gold you hit the ball and then watch it. And every now and then you get off a really good shot and it feels so good, that’s what makes you keep playing.” Makes sense. But where do you get the time?

Anyway, I take the scenic drive, which is a toll road that costs, get this, $11. I can ride the entire NJ Turnpike for almost that much. Yeah, you say, but it wasn’t this pretty. No it wasn’t. But I can guarantee it’s not $11 worth of pretty. I saw greater, finer, more beautiful sights earlier in the day. There were seals here, and a well known pine that takes a nice picture, but in the end it was just a long drive past a bunch of houses and golf courses.

I was thirsty and did stop at Pebble Beach to buy a soda. That’s closer than most duffers get, and as close I ever need to go. It is beautiful, but in the end it’s a golf course not the Grand Canyon.

Back on the highway I plow through Monterey proper out to the neighbor town of Marina which grew up around another of the many military installations here. This one is not like the posh language school in Monterey. I can see the burrowed vaults that hold ordinance for the maneuvers they do here. In the town I find my hotel, rest my feet, and decide I should at least see Monterey and so drive back into town as the sun sets. The old village that has been carefully spruced and glittered and is appealing. The main street is busy with people, well equipped with restaurants and bars, plenty of shops. I walk the length of the strip, from the actual old Spanish houses at the north to the mid 20th century intersection with confusing traffic at the south.

After a quick snack of spanokopita at a hole in wall Greek diner, I walk back up the street. My cash card doesn’t work for some reason (it turns out to have expired that week) and the British Goods shop with Aero bars and Marmite and Mashy peas is closing up.

A small movie house is here. Now thinking of my trip overseas seven years ago I see they are playing “In Bruges,” a movie in the “Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels,” genre, but set in Bruges. I loved Bruges (Brugge in Flemish as it is part of Flanders) and decide to see it.

The movie is grim and gruesome, with the black humor I expected, and lovely views of the places there. Years ago I bought a DVD called Aria, which had filmed settings of operatic arias. The Lute song from Die Tode Stadt (which is set in Bruges) is filmed there and that song which is so ravishing, set amid the canals and renaissance houses of Bruges, have forever engraved that poignance in me. The movie evoked the music even as the actors shot themselves to death in wildly bloody fashion.

At the hotel later a girl’s softball team across the hall thumped and slammed doors well into the evening. I cruelly wished Ralph Fiennes (the uber villain of the movie) was there with his narrow diamond lit eyes and massive handgun.

14 April 2008

Back To The Left Coast


Back to my travels. I could leave them incomplete but something nags at me to finish that story. Two stories now.

Out west my journey from San Simeon north to Monterey was every bit as thrilling and consoling as I wanted. People told me about the PCH as a narrow winding road along the steep slopes, so harrowing that one could scarcely notice the vista for fear of driving to one’s death. Wrong. While hardly a six lane highway, the brutal landscape of rock and sea and chartreuse grass and shrub did not forbid a goodly two land road with ample shoulders. Yes, the curves were deep and had to be taken slowly, but those on the highway were like me, there for the experience and thus in no hurry.

Nearly a dozen times I pulled over to catch the view without moving, from a short walk in to the precipitous redwood grove to a series of cliffs jutting toward the sea and the impossibly alive pacific ocean, whose waves were anything but gentle as they slapped the rocky shore for mile after mile.

Arriving at the Big Sur region at lunchtime, I indulged a hilltop restaurant whose prices were equally tall. But the view was what I paid for, and the nearby patrons, some of whom were staying at the spa like hotel. As I drove up the narrow road there were one or two comely ladies jogging along the edge. A boutique with signature bathrooms and local objets d’art told me this was a place for the financially ample. Feeling like an interloper, and treated like one by a staff that recognizes the rich and famous and thus condescends to the merely middlesome, it was a pleasant bit of inverse slumming with a crab cake salad and some Belgian beer, which I nursed as long as I could before the sun proved too bright and potentially burning.

Waiting until the slight buzz of the ale faded, I returned to my car and soon found myself riding through a narrow valley. The road was already leaving room for perched houses, some of which I saw before lunch, or rather I saw their gates. Only when I looked backward from a sinuous curve did I see the self consciously modern aeries with their windows looking out to sea, all with the sort of California informality that never suggests modesty.

Now, though, heading into Big Sur proper, the road traveled in the valley just east of the coast, not an 8th of a mile, but out of view of the sea. I gassed up at a wildly expensive filling station, serving a community with no other choice. Much like those service areas on turnpikes or airport merchants beyond the security zone who know they have no competition.

Not long after leaving the gas station (I think it was after lunch at least) the Esalen Institute and I passed Henry Miller’s Library, which was his home as well and now a bookstore cum museum.


The former was the subject of a book I read a review about, famously infamous for being a hotbed of sexual liberty and esoteric conversation, made into an emulsion by the wild and wooly location. Of course, today it is all past tense, or mostly so. It’s devoted hope to preserve the excesses of the counterculture now makes it seem more seedy and pitiful that revolutionary. All I saw was the sign and gate. Nothing appeared in my rear view mirror this time.

Henry Miller’s home is a rustic place in a hollow at the bend in a hairpin curve. It looked more like a traveling bookstore, the kind with dusty bins of books propped on sawhorses. By the time I realized what it was, it was upon me I was passed it and wondered if I should go back. I didn’t.

That reminded me of the strawberry stand in Oxnard a week before, perched alongside the straight road between two vast fields where workers were stooping in the sun, a truck in the field holding large metal cans of water for refreshment. I thought then, “should I go back?’

If you think it, you probably should. Hope I can keep that wisdom in mind the next time.

13 April 2008

Five Will Get You Ten...

Well, we’re up to 35 trees. Keep it going!

Cold weather, I think the last harrumph of winter. My bizarre brain imagines a scene from an old B&W movie from the 1930s, those with elegant people with faint English accents where the men have double breasted suits and pencil moustaches and women wear their hair in artful buns and rolls atop their heads. Winter is the sadder but wiser girl who is being jilted for someone younger and more demure. She looks sideways at her feckless swain, draws a long breath on a cigarette, moves to walk away; then comes back and slaps him across the face before flinging her fox over her shoulder as she leaves the room.

In fact, the sun has just come out, despite the cold temperatures. Bluets dot the lawn next door. This week it will get above 60 F. I will get over her.

Have you noticed how politics has faded in the last two weeks? Without an election to handicap, what is there to say?

Plenty, if we were talking about the national agenda and future. I read about struggles in the airlines industry with rising fuel costs and a newly vigilant FAA, the rising cost of food and whether to take land out of conservation to grow more grain, the sturm und drang over the Olympic Torch which is about human rights in China not sports, unemployment, inflation, Zimbabwe, I could go on. But somehow candidates only matter when racing like horses. Their actual ideas and analyses are boring.

Sports nation. Unless there is a score to keep, a game on, we don’t care. If there’s no competition, there’s no interest. Here’s what I want you to do to test my notion. Watch the news and tell me how many stories (as a proportion) are structured like a game or contest. Here’s what to look for:

1. Conflict or competition – good guy versus bad guy
2. Someone will win or lose
3. Money is at stake
4. The issue as expressed is fairly simple.

Tell me what you find out. Oh, there are the human interest stories, the heartwarming stuff, but I’ll bet (see we even use the language without realizing it!) most news is really sports.

Well, it's Sunday morning and I gotta run. Thanks for visiting, and don't forget my trees!

09 April 2008

Guilty? Yes. Ashamed? No.

Thanks to those who got my trees off to a start. Like I said, if you donate the first 100 I will match them personally, but only if you out there give the first 100. Each tree costs $1. How easy is that?

I’ll get back to my recent journeys next time. Today I’ll indulge an indulgence. That is to say, I’ll tell you about a toy I bought myself.

While in California a colleague showed me his iphone, the apple cell phone. I am not a big cell phone user, except when traveling, so its charms were appealing but there was not way to justify buying one.

While in Boston I misplaced my cell phone. As I was traveling, getting a new one was important so I went to an AT&T store nearby to replace it. “Maybe I should get an iphone,” ran through my mind. But it turns out that one needs to activate on your personal computer which was not with me. So I bought a lesser phone, which was far better than the one I lost as that was now over two years old and therefore hopelessly outdated.

Packing my bag before coming home, what falls out from between the dirty socks but my lost phone. I am actually not surprised. This has happened to me before, losing something and looking high and low for it, and then having it turn up after replacing it. Telling you in person would be mortifying, but in the privacy of the page it’s not so hard to admit.

Once home, two phones in hand, I had to make a decision. Return the new phone or retire the old phone. The old phone was old, and my son’s is in far worse shape and needs to be replaced. He abuses them which is why it is worse, but should he get a new phone as a result.

At the store in town I give in to whim and moral order, and buy my iphone. The whim part is that I sincerely do not need it, but boy do I like it. The numbers are nice and large, which is great for large fingers and aging eyes. It is easy to use, doesn’t even have a manual because you don’t really need it. And yet it keeps my calendar, phone numbers, and collects my email effortlessly (which my other device can do but badly).

The moral order part is that now my son will get my old phone which is just like his beat up one, and that is as it should be – like hand me down cars and the like.

Strictly speaking, it is selfish, and expensive. Rationally, there is no justification for it. But boy can I rationalize one.

Help defray my guilt, then, and plant a tree, OK?

05 April 2008

Getting Down And Dirty

Yes, that’s an ad over there. Lots of blogs post them and some even make money from them. But not being a very popular blog, and being a good guy sort of fellow, I have declined.

Until now.

For ten years I have been a minor supporter of The Nature Conservancy. My folks were, and so I became one. Just $100 a year, that’s all. But what keeps me at it is their commitment to preserving trees and stuff.

They sent me this idea, to plant a billion trees, which appeals to me obviously. With so much rainforest disappearing and so much carbon in air which plants remove, this is part of my effort to offset my carbon footprint.

So if you can, send a buck. Plant a tree. Save the world. Easy. And watch the meter to see how long it takes to get to 1000.

Here’s a thought. If you give the first 100 by the end of April, I’ll give the next hundred. That’s right, you have 25 days, which means only four trees a day. Surely you can do that.

I’ll return to the travel stories and tell you about my indulgent purchase this week soon. Right now, this is more important.