I started this column many times. I’d think I had my outrages lined up, but then something else would pop up in one of my 58 sources for moment-by-moment news. On Thursday, for instance, we spent the day at the Exploratorium with my younger granddaughter, and I got home and turned on the TV and, bless me, John Bolton. I mean, yes, I’d heard that it might happen, but I never thought it might, you know, happen.
There was the March for Life started by those blessed children at Parkland and, John Bolton is fucking harshing my mellow. I want no more schoolchildren to be killed by a nuclear rain of death. I think we should have laws banning the use of nuclear weapons by crazy tinpot narcissists.
When the kids are done bringing a glimmer of hope to a cold universe, I’d like for old people to march against killing everybody.
There are stages to dealing with Trump. The first is hopeful: He’ll be in office a few months and everyone will lose their illusions and realize they’d been lied to and that Trump has no plans to make their lives better. Then Congress passes a tax bill that gives everyone an extra $47 a year and everyone is all, “Trump is keeping his promises.”
Yes, his approval rating dipped eight points, but still right around 40 per cent of the voting age populace (or, at least, of those inclined to interact with pollsters) say they support him. There is good information, but people have turned away from good information; indeed, from the very idea of information itself.
Not only that, by supporting Trump they’re somehow giving it to me, the elite media, the cranky intellectuals, the atheists, the abortionists, and a wide variety of black people, brown people, yellow people, red people, and whatever other colors we’re using to prove to ourselves that race is a real construct grounded in real reality.
Am I saying anything new? I am not. I don’t know there’s anything new to say. I have seen the best minds of my generation, starving hysterical naked, trying to construct 500 words for the Sunday edition or the March issue or the second book in a two-book deal, pounding their brains for a new angle, a brave new apercu that will be seen as the turning point in the narrowly averted constitutional crisis, who subsequently disappeared into the volcanoes of Mexico leaving behind nothing but the shadow of dungarees and the lava and ash of poetry scattered in fireplace Chicago, We’ve all been there.
I do not despair because we are all in this together, because united we fight, because there are more of us than there are of them, and are you feeling better? The arc of history bends toward justice, but we need something a little more immediate than a bending arc. Just to make sure the earth isn’t a post-apocalyptic nightmare before we take on rising seas.
First, there should still be seas.
My mind tends toward disaster planning anyway. Give me a situation, and I can always find a way to turn it into a nuclear holocaust. I know this about myself, so I try not to inflict my harrowing views on others, knowing that I have always been wrong. Still, there have been times in human history when catastrophic thinking has been a description of reality. The worst case scenario is still a scenario.
How do we know when the worse case is happening? We don’t — until it’s too late. I’m the guy going around repeating “until it’s too late” and annoying people on my local monorail transportation system.
Many people from Eastern Europe are U.S. citizens now and they, who have seen the effects of failing to constructively panic, have written helpful “how do I know that tyranny is coming” checklists. Number one might be, “do you have a leader who fantasizes about killing people?” He wants to kill drug dealers. The president is probably unaware that he hobnobbed with drug dealers. They were white, though, and they wore beautiful suits. Probably they wouldn’t have to die after all.
Number two might be, hold on, I had a thought. Unless you’re from Florida, you probably don’t know that Marjorie Stoneman Douglas was a person before she was the scene of a tragedy. She was born in the 19th Century, went through a cheating husband, a career as a newspaper reporter (she liked it), and a stint in the Navy (she didn’t like it), all before the first world war broke out. She went back to the newspaper business and started writing full time. In 1942, she wrote River of Grass, a book about the rape of the Everglades by Big Sugar and other monopolies. It is still relevant today; sadly, much of the initial dynamic continues. It is a masterpiece of type; if you read Silent Spring or The End of Nature, you should read it.
She was was born during the administration of Benjamin Harrison and died during the administration of Bill Clinton. Beat that.
You see why I digressed? There are still heroes. There are still people who do all these admirable things. Think of all the people at the EPA and the National Park Service, trying to keep stuff together despite hostility from the administration. Imagine that now: Someone located wonderfully far from the top of the bureaucracy, invisible even to the Human Resources Department, resisting memos, deflecting advisories, even selectively ignoring commands from above, what a hero is she. Or he. Such heroes are they.
Nothing about Marjorie Stoneman Douglas’s life was easy. She was a female newspaper reporter in 1910. Just imagine.
Nothing is easy at her high school either, nor will it be for quite some time. We have allowed this shit to continue, and shame on us. There was a hard-to-miss subtext in all the marches for life: Old people should get the fuck out of the way. Because all this happened on their watch.
As an old person, I can only say: They may have a point there.
I plan to continue to continue, shrugging off guilt. Guilt is just your brain’s way of saying “never mind.” The next thing is before us. The great work begins. This is the ass-end of change, but most generations get to go through something like that. Imagine being an quiet, soulful Russian in 1928. People formed groups, you know what I’m saying? Secret resistance groups —they didn’t exactly put invitations on Facebook. You know that secret groups are happening now; it’s as predictable as fascists overplaying their hands. Wanna see where you fit? Maybe call that guy who knows that woman, and maybe ask.
We seek to avoid tyranny, or its most extreme reaction, a kind of despairing chaos. There will be real holy laughter in the river! They saw it all! the wild eyes! the holy yells! They bade farewell! They jumped off the roof to solitude! waving! carrying flowers! Down to the river! into the street!
All very sweet, but it’s hardly a system of government.
The absolute best thing in the world, on some mornings at least: Oatmeal. It’s warm, it’s tasty, it satisfies the hunger morning often brings. Pour in a little milk, add some raisins: Manna. Breakfast for the groggy of the world, it clarifies your worldview and gives you soluble fibers, which help stabilize blood sugar and (and, ladies and gentlemen, and) lower cholesterol, according to some person on the Internet. Oatmeal gives you the kind of open, contemplative frame of mind that only a warming fire, a good book and a pliant cat can normally provide.
I ate oatmeal when I was six years old; I ate it when I was 60. Still good. Say, why not have a bowl right now? I’ll wait.
The last time I was thinking unhurried oatmeal thoughts was at the Bug. Our friend Tom told us about The Bug. We asked him about it. What, you may be wondering, was the question to which “the Bug” was the answer. Here it is: “What’s a good place to stay near Yosemite Valley?”
For Christmas, my fine wife gave me a trip to Yosemite, complete with three days residence at the Yosemite Bug, which is its formal name. (The Bug is named after the Horned Pine Beetle, which is not the same as the mountain pine beetle — see below). We expected that we’d be walking through snow up trails to see frozen waterfalls and around meadows where the rising monoliths of granite appear mysteriously out of the fog. It would at least be relatively unpopulated; Yosemite is not known for its downhill skiing or wilderness ice rinks. But we reckoned without the miracle of global warming.
I’ll get to Yosemite in a moment. I wanted to show you fabulous photos, but Tracy was unhappy with how the photos came out. She wanted me not to use them at all, but I persuaded her by promising I would be very careful in my selection process. I think you’ll approve; Yosemite does not need to be gussied up.
But first, the Bug. We had a private room with bath (or bath en suite, as the English say), which is top-of-the-line accommodations at the Bug. You could get a shared bathroom, or a hostel-type dorm room, or tent cabins — it’s that kind of place. You can eat at the large warm dining hall, which has excellent dinners (portions too large for me, but I’m not a big eater of meals after sundown) and very fine coffee and organic whatevers and, as I have mentioned, oatmeal. And a view of the pines and bays and lots of familiar California vegetation. In fact, the Bug is a familiar California kind of place, simultaneously laid back and alert. Think Zen, only without the incessant sitting.
The Bug is a 40 minute drive along the Merced River from the park entrance. It was February, so there was no line at the ranger’s kiosk. Indeed, there were no traffic jams anywhere in the Valley, despite the network of insanely complex, under-signed roads. It’s almost as though God didn’t want cars in Yosemite at all.
Temperatures hovered around 70; T-shirt weather. The waterfalls were flowing freely because the snows above them were melting. California had a wet winter in 2017, and everyone said “Phew. Long showers again!” Alas. But good news! Warm winter weather and mighty waterfalls are adding to the California lifestyle. Kids splashed in Mirror Lake, which is now more like Mirror Creek.
At sundown, we found a deserted meadow with views of El Capitan and Cathedral peaks. We sat on a log and gazed at towering granite peaks, the darkening sky, the peaceful meadow. I thought about the Indians who first saw the place 8000 years ago. Game and fish were plentiful, the meadows were fertile; the weather moderate even at its 4000 foot elevation. Imagine turning to others in your exploratory band and saying, “you know, guys, correct me if I’m wrong, but we could…” Untold generations later, John Muir arrived and, through no fault of his own, started the process of fucking up the place. Yet, it has survived all attempts to despoil it. So far.
This is the way we live now, or at any rate the way I live. Searching for peace and natural splendor, I used up a tank of gas to drive to a famous valley hundreds of miles away so I can sit on a tree trunk and contemplate serenity in a partially paved natural wonderland, after lunch at a hotel that is mired in a naming dispute characterized by stupid greed on both sides. I have a damn backyard; I have a wilderness park a mile from my house, but no, I’m going to satisfy my urge for simplicity using all the tools destructive modern capitalism can give me.
At least I’m not putting holes in El Capitan so I can climb to the top and feel manly. You want to overcome obstacles and conquer fear? Go live in Aleppo.
But of course I’m raging against myself. It’s me that’s using the resources, taking the shortcuts, living the way nest-egg-adjacent white Americans have lived since Teddy Roosevelt. People need the system. Satirists write satire in order to eat; anarchists join organizations so they can afford the rent. Some retired liberals go to work for a year in Chad or Haiti, then come back and resume their lifestyle. It’s just something that happens; if I could change that, I’m not sure I would. Life is sweet when you can afford olive oil from Italy and saffron from Spain, which is really saffron from Iran.
In the forests I can see from the meadow, more than half the trees are dead because of an infestation of mountain pine beetles, often described as “about the size of a grain of rice.” The beetles are always there, but when it’s dry, the trees begin dying, and the beetles feed on the weakest. No one knows the number of dead trees in the west; all the National Park Service can say is “millions of acres.” Those dead trees are really great tinder for wildfires, which grow in size yearly.
The forests are weakened by drought, monoculture farming and the suppression of forest fires, all three caused or invented by human beings. Beetles don’t kill trees; human beings kill trees.
And so forth. I didn’t used to think dark thoughts when I was staring at glorious mountain vistas; on the other hand, the environment was in better shape back then. Man-made climate change is real, as are school shootings and endless wars and lunatic misogynistic politicians.
Apparently the redwood trees are doing fine and the red-tailed hawks are thriving. Also ravens and rats. We love the creatures endangered by climate change, but we dislike the adaptable survivors. Liberal guilt is not pleasant in person; it’s hypocrisy with just enough conscience to make you feel bad. But there it is.
After 10 minutes or so of self-trashing, I slid my butt down onto the moist earth and felt the wind on my face and watched the dying sun illuminate the west end of the valley. Might as well enjoy this before nightfall. Then we’ll drive back to the Bug and, who knows, order up another bowl of oatmeal. Life is good, except for the stuff I just mentioned.