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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

 
The One and Only Susan Arbetter -- I don't think there's a broadcaster I've enjoyed working with more in my over 20 years in radio than Susan Arbetter.

If you live anywhere in New York State, chances are you know her as the host of New York Now, which airs on PBS stations statewide. Perhaps you've read her blog. Maybe you read about her amazing storybook wedding in the New York Times. For three years, I was privileged to work a couple of feet away from her in the WAMC newsroom in Albany, New York. WAMC is Albany's NPR affiliate, and Susan and I toiled together in the station's newsroom, she masterminding The Roundtable, a daily three-hour news and entertainment show, while I produced and hosted a comparitively paltry one-hour news show, Midday Magazine.

If you've seen or heard her work, you know Susan is a brilliant broadcast journalist, insightful, warm and as engaging a presence as you'll find on TV or radio. In the three years we worked together at WAMC, we had many amazing conversations that I'll never forget, and I learned a hell of a lot from her about intellectual honesty and just putting it out there. Knowing her helped me be a little less afraid to express myself, and it's safe to say I'll always cherish the many hours we batted ideas around, laughed at our stupid and brilliant in-jokes, or shared the many and varied treats that found their way into the newsroom, low-fat, low-carb and high-fiber, every last goddamn one of 'em. Right, Susan?

Anyways, these days I'm writing and producing commercials in the foothills of the Adirondacks, while Susan is a famous TV personality and blogger. But she still takes the time to answer my emails, and I stand amazed and honoured that she has the time to reminisce and laugh with me on a regular basis, even if these days it's only in email. I miss the hell out of working with her, it was truly a high point of my career. And like most high points, you don't really realize it until you're looking at it in the rearview mirror.


Anyway, today is Susan's birthday, and I wanted to take a minute to wish her a very happy birthday and many, many returns of the day. I'd share one of those private in-jokes to bring a smile to your face, but the first one I thought of, and one that's most appropriate to the year I've been having, is a dirty little ditty that begins with the words "Here comes..." and then ventures off into NC-17 territory. But Susan, I want you to know I think of that song often, and I always think of you when I do. I'm sure that's both hilarious and incredibly inappropriate, and I can't think of a more appropriate way to wish you a happy birthday. Give Bill a hug for me, and tell him to give you one right back, and from there, just go with wherever the moment takes you, 'kay?

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Friday, August 24, 2007

 
ADD Interviews Harvey Pekar -- In October of 2005, on the occasion of the release of the graphic novel The Quitter, I did a radio interview with writer Harvey Pekar, whose American Splendor series of autobiographical comics pointed the way to the future of the artform for decades. This interview was transcribed by Michael Rhode, and will also appear in a forthcoming collection of interview with Pekar that he is editing.

Click here to listen to or download an MP3 of this interview
.

Alan David Doane: Comic book readers have known about Harvey Pekar for many years following your life and times through your series American Splendor. The greater public at large learned about your story through the American Splendor movie a couple of years back. Tell me what effect the movie had on your life and your approach to your comics?

Harvey Pekar: Like I say, I’m just living the way I used to live. I live in the same house, I eat the same food, I dress the same. Y’know, there’s not much difference. I’m trying to do as much writing as I possibly can – you know, comic book writing and prose writing because I do reviews and some essays.

Which do you enjoy more – the comics writing or the prose writing? Or is it just two totally different…

I mean comics writing is more important to me than prose writing most of the time because in comics writing I fell like I sort of have kind of an innovative style, and I want to extend that. It’s important to me to do kind of new things. The prose stuff that I do – stylistically it’s pretty straightforward, although I get really worked about some of the stuff, you know like politics or music reviews or book reviews – things like that. But nobody would have heard of me if it hadn’t been for comics. I’m very lucky, and very thankful that I got a few breaks that enabled me to have a career in comics.

Since the movie came out, there have been quite a few really big collections of your previous comics work in addition to your new book, which we’re going to talk about in a few minutes. Do you think these collections are helping you to expand your readership?

Yeah, I know they are because they’re selling fairly well, and that’s something I should say – since the movie, my book sales have really, you know, skyrocketed. I mean going from practically nothing into respectability. I mean I actually for the first time in my life, and I’ve been doing comics for many, many years, I’m actually making royalties. I feel like that’s quite a luxury.

Yeah, but it’s a luxury you’ve certainly worked for with all the years … just from reading your stories…all the years of worrying about paying bills and trying to make the comic successful, it must be quite gratifying.

Yeah, it is very gratifying, but it’s like I’m too old to really believe it. You know, every time I get a check or something like that, it’s a joke. I go back into my old way of thinking, my pessimistic way of thinking, which is not good. But I dunno. I guess after you get to be a certain age, some people can’t change.

Have you received any feedback from new readers? People that have maybe started picking up your stuff since the movie came out?

Oh yeah, I get a lot of positive feedback all the time. Yeah, from new readers. And I enjoy it. My number’s in the phone book, so that in case somebody wants to call me after they’ve seen the movie at 4:30 in the morning on HBO and tell me how much they enjoyed it, they can do that. I hate to miss out on some praise, you know.

Sure, I think all creative people like to hear what people about their work. Who do you think the average reader is that you’d like to reach with your comics work?

I think I have a larger audience in the general book-reading public, than in the comic book area, because comic book fans are, for the most part, superhero fans and my stuff is not about guys going about in spandex suits, punching people and stuff. And so they tend not to be all that interested in my work. I mean, it’s not escapist, and that’s what they’re really looking for is escapism. General readers – since my stuff has come out in trade paperback and it’s been available at regular bookstores – that’s when my sales really started to go up.

Your work is sort of the opposite of escapism --really completely immersing yourself in the human condition rather than trying to forget about it or ignore it.

Yeah, that’s what I try to do. You’re exactly right. Thank you.

And I have to say, one of my favorite scenes, and maybe this is a chance to ask you about that, one of my favorite scenes in the movie is that scene right at the beginning with little Harvey going trick-or-treating in just his regular clothes and all the other kids dressed up in superhero costumes – that seemed to me like it was a comment on your place in the comics realm.

Yeah, well, actually, I didn’t script that. I just told them… the credit for that scene should go to Bob Pulcini and Shari Berman, the writer-directors. But what I told them was when I was a kid, I didn’t go much for playing around and for frills and stuff like that. I used to go trick-or-treating with the other kids, but I wouldn’t wear a costume, you know, because that seemed like it was kind of childish or something, or I was above it or something like that, so that’s where they got the idea for that.

You know, my kids have seen American Splendor and loved it, and now the funny thing is they probably would wear a Harvey Pekar costume.

[laughs] Well, let me know if you can find any anyplace.

I don’t think that would be that hard to make. Let me ask you, Harvey – Paul Giamatti did such a wonderful job in the movie channeling your character, and I’m just wondering, did you stay in contact with him? Did you enjoy his performance?

Oh, I enjoyed it. Yeah, he’s great. Yeah, I’ve stayed in contact with him, although, you know, the more time that elapses between the end of the movie’s run and the present, the less I see of him, or have contact with him and the other people in the movie. That being said, I just had breakfast with a couple of HBO employees. I mean, it was just a marvelous experience making that movie. I get asked a lot of times about how Giamatti went about learning to play me, and how he did such a great job, and people assume that he came out to Cleveland, you know, a few weeks early or something, and just shadowed me all the time, and you know, picked up my gestures and things like that, but in actuality, he just got that from videotapes of me, I guess on the Letterman show, and the written work that I’ve done. He’s really a master.

Yeah, that one scene in the movie, where he is watching you… he’s sort of semi-off-stage and watching you… he seems to be taking such delight in being in your presence that you got the feeling that he really developed a great affection for you. I think that really came through.

We like each other a lot. He’s very nice guy, and a real likable guy. There’s no doubt about that, and still, although he’s gotten more acclaim, still an underappreciated actor, I think. I think he’s one of the best out there.

Yeah, I think the first movie I saw him in was the Howard Stern movie, if you’ve seen that. He played this vile character, but he did it so well.

Yeah, yeah, the guy where he put on a slight southern accent. Yeah, I remember that.

Yeah, a lot of range there. A great actor.

Yeah, yeah, he is. He’s wonderful.

Well, your new book is The Quitter. It’s published by Vertigo Comics and with illustrations by Dean Haspiel. It’s described at one point, I think maybe on the back of the book, as sort of a prequel to the movie and having just finished it last night, that seems really apt. It does cover the period from that Halloween scene up until where the rest of the movie really begins, covering a large chunk of your childhood and really filling in a lot of holes. Can you tell me how the idea for finally doing a long-form autobiography like this came about?

Yeah. Actually what happened was the illustrator, Dean Haspiel, was the person who put me in touch with Ted Hope who was the producer of the movie. He was doing some freelance illustration work for Hope and he told him that he had done some work me, and Hope said that he liked my work and he’d be interested in doing a movie based on it. So, my wife and I called and we had a deal with them. I thought, “Good, we’re going to get some option money.” I didn’t, in my wildest dreams, think that we’d be able to sell this movie because who’s going to invest a couple million dollars in a movie based on a comic book that sells maybe 3,000 copies a year. But amazingly, Hope was able to sell HBO on the thing, and it’s like a storybook kind of tale after that. I mean, it won awards and everything, so at the end of it all, I called up Dean and said, “Look, I really appreciate your tipping Hope off to me. Is there anything within reason that I can do to pay you back?” And he said, “Yeah, let me illustrate a long work of yours.” So I said OK, but I didn’t off-hand know of anybody who would be interested. He had contacts with DC Comics, more specifically with their Vertigo line which is supposed to be their more intellectual kind of stuff, and because people were still talking about the movie, he was able to interest some editors in my doing something.

At first, I thought -- they were telling me that they wanted me to do something that was fiction, y’know, and they even said something with a romantic interest and stuff. I tried to do that, you know, like write fiction based on my own experience, but I just saw where for me it would work so much better if I just was as accurate as I could be and didn’t gloss over anything. So I wrote the comic like that and just hoped that they would see that it was better that way. And happily they did. They liked it a lot and they really got behind it and the promotion they’ve done with this book is just incredible. I mean, you know… they’ve gotten it publicized so well and sales so far have been just terrific, even before the thing’s been released. I mean, it’s staggering to me.

I have to say, that it’s surprising -- you mentioned that Vertigo’s sort of the intellectual line of DC, but even for a Vertigo title, it really is a strikingly touching and human work that really offers some profound insight into your life. I for one am grateful that they published it. I’m grateful that you took the time to write it.

Well, I think that Vertigo’s looking for more stuff like it, in case anybody out there is interested. Some of the stuff that they’ve done actually hasn’t really varied that much from standard comics, but I know that the editors there would like to develop a lot more independent lines. I’m hoping that comics do continue to expand. I was just at a Small Press Expo a couple of weeks ago and I saw some really fine stuff out there, but it was like it was all self-published or the publishers were really small, and I wasn’t aware of anybody. Guys were coming up to me and handing me examples of their work, and when I got it back home and got a chance to look at it, I was really impressed, but then I was kind of depressed because nobody knows about these people.

But is that not were you were in, say, 1975-1976?

Yeah, that’s where I was… well, I actually thought with the coming of underground comics in the late '60s, well mid-'60s actually I guess it started, that comics would be forever changed. I thought when people saw that you could write about just about anything you wanted to in underground comics, they wouldn’t be so under-utilized. In fact, nothing much has changed, and that’s pretty distressing for me, that still superhero comics are at the top of the heap, you know, like so many years later. Okay, if people want to like superhero comics, that’s fine, but the superhero sub-genre doesn’t dominate any other art form, and it certainly shouldn’t dominate comics.

And I think we’re really in a transitional period right now, and have been probably for the last couple of years, where the greater comics industry, including stuff like the stuff that you do, is expanding into areas like mainstream bookstores and libraries, but the comic shops are kind of entrenched and dug in and continuing to emphasize the superheroes. Meanwhile, also comics from Japan, I think, is another area that’s seeing some expansion everywhere except the comics shops. I dunno, I’m starting to see a pattern where perhaps the comics shops are going to be the ones that are left behind as everybody else gets into all the other kind of comics that are out there.

I think they have been hurting. I know a guy who worked with one and lost his job – the place went under. Statistically, there are a lot fewer comics shops now than there were maybe a couple of decades ago. It looked like there was going to be a kind of revival in the eighties, but then it just slowed down again.

Well, there’s got to be hope though if DC sees a place for The Quitter in its lineup, don’t you think?

Well, but people have to offer them stuff like that. And they have to accept it to. Some of the stuff that I saw, that I was impressed with, would impress a lot of regular comic book readers as being pretty avant-garde. There’s a lot of free-association and things like that in it, and I mean, people haven’t even accepted James Joyce’s Ulysses after all these years and if they see stuff like that in comics, they’re going think it’s not commercial. There are these commercial considerations. A large company like DC will just go so far; they want to see something proven. If my movie hadn’t gone over as well as it did – it made some money and got a lot of artistic approval – if that hadn’t a happened, I wouldn’t a had a chance with DC.

But I do think it’s an incremental thing though. I think that because The Quitter is a success, maybe next year they’ll print two or three like that, and year after that, maybe four or five, if it continues to resonate with readers.

Well, I hope so. But then on the other hand, I look back on all the good work that was done in the late 60s by people like Robert Crumb, and Frank Stack, and Spain Rodriguez, and really first class stuff. In my opinion, that was the most fruitful of periods in comic history and yet nothing came of it. The hippies that supported the movement became yuppies after we pulled out of Vietnam and it just went down again. So I’m not takin’ anything for granted. I’m gonna to try to take advantage as much as possible of the opportunities I have to write varied kind of stories, like I’m doing one about a woman who went to Macedonia to find out why there was peace there, and there wasn’t peace anywhere else in the former Yugoslavia. I’m trying to do quite a variety of things, but I dunno, a lot of people are sort of afraid of that thing. Especially the publishers are afraid of them.

Is there any chance perhaps, some of the artists whose work you encountered at the Small Press Expo, maybe you’ll do some work with some of them?

Well, that would be just … if I did, they would just be illustrating it, I’d be writing the stories. I sincerely think that some of those people out there are very good and deserve to be recognized nationally. But with all avant-garde art in the past century, it’s been very hard for the general public to accept. I mentioned Ulysses, I could mention Arnold Schoenberg’s work – 100 years after he started doing the stuff -- it’s still not accepted – atonal music that is. People still don’t like non-objective paintings. There used to be a time lag that used to be overcome between the time a piece of art came out, a challenging piece of art, and the time the public would be able to figure out where it was coming from. But now, it’s like a permanent time lag. It’s like there’s just no acceptance by the general public of anything that was done after like 1925 or something.

At least as far as comics go, I guess maybe I have a little more of an optimistic view, and again, looking at as kind of a transitional period over the last couple of years, where we’ve seen companies like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly start to pick up business in the bookstores and start to make some inroads with libraries and things like that. I really think that there’s an awful lot of good comics that are being published today especially by companies like Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Pantheon, the publishers that you’ve been working with… I’ve been reading comics for over thirty years and it does seem there’s always, if you know where to look, and it is sometimes hard to find it, but there always is good quality work being done and it seems to me we’re seeing a lot more mention of it in the media and the press in the last couple of years, and that kind of gives me hope, I guess.

Well, I hope you’re right. I have a tendency to be pessimistic, and I hope you’re right, and I’m not convinced. I’m just going to try to do as much as I can to put out good work. I also try and interest editors in some of these young artists I run across and I hope that some of their work will be more widely read.

Well, as far as your own work, what does the future hold for American Splendor as a brand? Will there be any more single issues? Or just books for a while?

Yeah, I think so. I’m working on something with DC… we’ve just laid the groundwork for a deal … they wanted me to do like four 32-page comic books a year, and maybe collect them at the end of the year, or something like that, in a trade paperback. So I need a place to do shorter stories – that’s mostly what I’ve done are shorter stories -- but I want to continue to write, now that I’ve had the opportunity, continue to write the longer pieces too, and I have two more works, longer pieces, in the process of being done and I plan to write more.

I’m very, very glad to hear that, as somebody who’s been reading your work for about twenty-five years now. As long as you keep writing it, I’ll keep reading it.

Well, thanks a lot. I appreciate that very much.

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Monday, August 06, 2007

 
Completely at Ease: An Interview with James Howard Kunstler

Introduction

On August 2nd, 2007 author James Howard Kunstler sat down with me for what turned out to be a wide-ranging discussion about his career, the state of the nation and the world, and his upcoming novel, World Made By Hand.

I first interviewed Jim Kunstler on the radio back in the 1990s, when the issue of suburban sprawl first came to my attention. The last time I interviewed him before this session was in 2000, and one doesn’t have to reflect long to realize how very much the world has changed since then. I believe Kunstler’s non-fiction books The Geography of Nowhere, Home From Nowhere, The City in Mind and The Long Emergency are groundbreaking works of crucial importance; he explains how we got where we are and where we’re likely headed in the very near future in eloquent, easy-to-understand and often very funny language. All the more tragic, then, that so many people from the highest levels of government to the man and woman on the (badly-designed) street are not getting the message.

This is a long interview, but it’s filled with important information that will directly affect your life and the life of everyone you know, and I hope you’ll take the time to read it fully, and most importantly, accept nothing on faith. Research the issues of peak oil and the sustainability of the American way of life, and you’ll very likely come to believe as I do, as Kunstler does, that things are about to change in profound and unavoidable ways. It’s the manner in which mankind deals with these changes that will define us for the remainer of the 21st century and beyond, but as you’ll read, it’s not all necessarily as apocalyptic as one might first assume.

The most rewarding moment in this interview, for me, came toward the end when Jim was describing the characters and setting of his forthcoming novel, World Made By Hand (Atlantic Monthly Press, coming in March of 2008). After all Kunstler has covered as a journalist and author, after all the bleak but credible scenarios he describes, I was delighted to see that he can still get excited about the act of writing. There was a positive twinkle in his eye as he told me how the new novel came together, and when he talked about how rewarding his overall writing career has been, I was very happy to hear that a writer whose work has meant so much to me, has felt himself so satisfied with the path of his career – “Completely at ease,” as he says. It was a privilege to talk to him for the hour we spent together, and I can’t thank him enough for taking the time to share his opinions, memories and observations with me.

Note: An audio MP3 (14MB) of this interview is available for download, as is a printable PDF file (351KB, 17 pages).


Alan David Doane: Could you tell us how you got into journalism?

James Howard Kunstler: I was a theatre major at a SUNY [State University of New York] four-year college, Brockport, back in the 1960s in the Age of Aquarius. My first job out of college was directing a play in summer stock, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare. And that was my last job in the theatre [laughs]. After that, I started writing for the hippie newspapers in Boston in the early ‘70s. From there I had a series of jobs, eventually at the Capital Newspapers in Albany [New York], and then from there I got a job at Rolling Stone magazine, which was then in San Francisco. And I figured that was about as far as I was going to get in journalism, so I dropped out in the late ‘70s to write books.

For the next fifteen years or so, I wrote eight novels and they were all published by various mainstream publishers. I didn’t get rich off of them, but I made enough money to pay the light bill. I would finish one on Friday and start another one on Monday, because that’s really how it was. I get a lot of letters from wanna-be writers, young people who want to become writers, probably the main thing they don’t understand is that perseverance counts for more than talent in this racket. If you can’t hang in there through all the discouragement and disappointments – because you’re writing in a vacuum, you’re producing a product that no one’s asked for, and there’s a lot of disappointment and failure involved that you have to get through. So you have to slog your way through it.

Around 1988 or so, I was getting a little burned out writing novels that weren’t making me rich, so I kind of segued back into journalism, and I started writing for The New York Times Magazine, a series of articles about development in America, particularly the northeast. And that led to a book proposal about the suburban predicament and why we had sort of destroyed the American landscape. And that book turned out to be The Geography of Nowhere. It led to several other books on the subject [Home from Nowhere, The City in Mind and The Long Emergency], and eventually to the next level for me, which was my previous book, The Long Emergency. Which is really more about the global energy predicament and its implications for American life than it is about suburbia per se.

One of the things that I was struck by in re-reading The Geography of Nowhere, and you kind of hinted at this, you sort of have had two major book-writing careers, as a fiction author and then these other – [you’re] almost like two separate authors in a way.

It was an interesting thing that happened to me, and I guess I entered the biz at a strange time, when literature per se was becoming less important, especially “The Novel,” as conceived in the previous era of Norman Mailer, and Updike and Philip Roth and all those guys, that was the previous generation. My generation sort of became over-supplied with that at a time when there was also an over-supply of movies and videos and DVDs and things to distract people.

The thing that struck me with The Geography of Nowhere, it almost seems at this point, and I’ll see if you agree, that it almost seems quaint in its optimism for the future. Even though it talks about, “We need to do this, we need to do that,” now that we’ve had a decade or more of Peak Oil predictions and seeing where things are going with the housing market, it seems like The Geography of Nowhere is almost an optimistic book in comparison to where we are today.

Well, yeah. I wrote about the oil predicament in the final chapters of The Geography of Nowhere, which was published in ’93. An interesting thing happened in the mid-‘90s, a whole cohort of petroleum geologists started retiring out of the major oil companies. And as they did this, they started publishing their own personal views after they had secured their pensions and gotten their retirement in order. And these guys started publishing their views about where the oil industry was really headed, and that really resulted in a shock of recognition for people who were paying attention to these issues.

Now the unfortunate thing is that neither the public nor the mainstream media nor the political sector is paying much attention to the oil story. But it’s a huge, huge problem that we face. It’s going to change everything about how we live. When I wrote The Geography of Nowhere, even back then I regarded the suburban situation as being really tragic. I wasn’t optimistic about it. The only thing I was optimistic about was, I had become associated with this group of people called The New Urbanists. And they offered what I thought was a pretty good remedy for the suburban problem. Which would have been, or which has been a return to traditional principles of urban design, town planning, et cetera.

The trouble is that the energy predicament is now presenting itself so rapidly and implacably that I don’t really think that we’re going to have an easy transition. I think that the longer that we put off making the necessary adjustments, the more disorderly and harsh this transition is going to be.

That’s something that I wanted to ask you about; you write in The Geography of Nowhere about the “City Beautiful” movement which was, correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like, in terms of the overall national mindset of how things should work, in a town, in a city, that that was probably the last time the country was headed in a sustainable direction.

Well, we were a very different country. And for the benefit of the people who don’t know what the City Beautiful movement was, it occurred at the turn of the previous century, in about a 25-year period from about 1890 to 1915, ’20. And it really was an extraordinary period in which we came to the recognition that we were becoming a world power and that we needed to have cities that were worthy of our greatness. And so you had this tremendous coalition of business leaders, municipal leaders, architects, planners, really all working together on the same page to produce the greatest things that we ever built in our cities. The great civic centers, the great museums and libraries, the great public buildings, all that stuff, the best of it, dates from that period.

We’re a very different country now, particularly in the post World War II period, where all kinds of things have changed, and most particularly we’ve had about 90 years of imposing the automobile over the terrain of North America with really disastrous results. And it can be stated pretty succinctly, that we have produced a living arrangement that has no future. And that’s a really big problem.

You have been a strong critic of the over-reliance on automobiles in the U.S., basically a lot of the problems that you see coming in the near future are a result of the over-reliance on the automobile. Can you tell me when you first started to see the signs were not pointing to, as you call it, a permanent “happy motoring era,” that this was the problem. What tipped you off?

It wasn’t really hard to understand; I was a young newspaper reporter during the first OPEC oil embargo in 1973, and interestingly enough in a newspaper office building that had just been relocated from downtown Albany [New York], to the suburban wasteland of Wolf Road [in Colonie, a suburb of Albany]. You could see what happened when the U.S. got into trouble with oil for a relatively short period of time. And unfortunately it was a short crisis, and people got over it. Moreover, there were things that happened afterwards that prompted us to think that it was an aberration. Namely, the last really great oil discoveries of the world, in the north slope of Alaska and the North Sea between England and Norway. These two great oil areas came into production in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, and they sort of took the pressure off of the Western world and removed the leverage from OPEC for a while.

Is it fair to say that gave a kind of false hope to the idea that [cheap oil] would never end?

Absolutely correct; yeah, that’s quite true. It really saved the West’s rear-end for about 15 years. And oil prices went down steadily from the mid-‘80s into the 21st century, until they were roughly ten dollars a barrel before 2001. So, the American people in particular developed the false reality that we didn’t have an oil problem, that we didn’t have an energy problem, and that we could just continue behaving the way we did. And ironically, or paradoxically, the worst part, the most emphatic part of the suburban build-out happened in those years, since the mid-‘80s when we built so much car-dependent stuff. It’s going to be such a liability for us, we have no idea.

We saw the price of a barrel of crude oil go up to record highs just this week...


Well, just yesterday it actually crossed into a frontier that it hasn’t been in, above $78.50. It retreated about a dollar late in trading, but the trend upward into the upper 70s towards $80.00 a barrel is now pretty firm.

And there really is no immediate hope that this situation is ever going to get better.

This is an implacable problem. There’s a new kind of wrinkle on the oil situation, and maybe a new interpretation that will help people understand it. And it has to do with this idea: That we’re discovering now that the exporting rates from the countries that sell us oil and sell oil to the rest of the developed world, the U.S., Europe, Japan, China and increasingly India, that the countries that export oil, their exports are declining at an even steeper rate than their production is declining. So, if Saudi Arabia’s production is down four percent this year, whatever it is, their export levels are going down at a steeper level. And the same is true for all the other major exporting nations.

So what you’re seeing here is a trend in which we’re going to get into trouble much sooner than people thought, and not sheerly over depletion but over simply the market availability. Now the poster child for this, and this is very important, the poster boy for this is Mexico. Mexico’s oil production, 60 percent of it is composed of one single oil field, the second largest field ever discovered in the history of the oil industry, called the Cantarell Oil Field in the Gulf of Mexico. It was discovered in the last 25 years and produced with the latest and greatest technology, which had the effect of only draining it more efficiently. So when people say “Don’t worry, we have new technology coming along,” this is one of the problems with it.

The Cantarell Oil Field of Mexico is now depleting at a minimum rate of about 15 percent a year. Meaning within about five or six years, it’s out. And long before that, they’re going to stop sending oil to the United States. Now, Mexico is America’s third leading source of oil imports. And what this means is we’re going to lose our third leading import supplier of oil within the next two or three years. This is going to have not only a tremendous effect on our ability to get around and go through our daily activities, but it is also going to create a tremendous amount of turmoil and hardship in Mexico; because the Mexican national government depends for nearly half of its revenue from the Mexican national oil industry, which is now entering a state of collapse. So as that occurs, we’re going to see probably a great deal of disorder down in Mexico. And if you think we have problems now with immigration, and with managing the border, I think the probability is that they’re only going to get worse.

When that comes to pass, they’re going to be looking to get the hell out of Dodge.

The last time there was a big problem in Mexico was this long, drawn-out revolution that occurred between about 1913 and 1940, and that was the era of Zapata, and all that tremendous amount of revolutionary activity. And back then, one-quarter of the Mexican population left the country. But back then the population of Mexico was 20 million. Now it’s over 100 million.

That’s a scary thought.

It is a scary thought, and it’s among a whole menu of thoughts that we’re not willing to even think about in the public discussion of these things.

If this is happening on a two- to three-year time scale as you say, wouldn’t you think that the people that are running for president now would be talking about it and trying to present some sort of solution, or at least a band-aid, and yet that’s the last thing that they’re talking about.

Well, I’m fond of saying that I’m allergic to conspiracy theories. And I am. People send me these 9/11 conspiracy emails and I pretty much disregard all that stuff. And I don’t think there’s a conspiracy among our leadership to keep us in the dark or anything, I think it’s simply can be explained truly as cognitive dissonance, which is a fancy way of saying “static in our collective imagination,” an inability to form a consensus about what’s important, and about what needs to be addressed. And I think that the more trouble that we face and get into and the scarier that these problems are, actually, the more likelihood there is that the cognitive dissonance will increase. And that’s one of the dangers that I think we face.

Let me give you an example. There is one particular project that is just absolutely imperative right now in this country. And that is rebuilding the American passenger railroad system; because we’re going to face enormous problems with transportation between our cities, of both people and of goods. And the trucking industry is going to get in enormous trouble, the commercial airline industries are going to be in big, big trouble, if they survive at all. You know, people are going to need a way to get around.

Now, look. We had a railroad system that was once the envy of the world. We now have a railroad system that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of. The infrastructure for rebuilding it is lying out there rusting in the rain, it doesn’t require the reinvention of anything, we know how to do this kind of technology. It could run on all different kinds of energy, but would do best if it ran on electricity, because it’s the most efficient and you can get electricity from a lot of different things. It would put scores of thousands of people to work at jobs at every level, from labor to management.

There’s another thing about it that’s terribly important. This country needs a project that can help build our – that can encourage us, that can give us some sense of accomplishment. That can build our confidence. It’s terribly important, because we’re going to be facing a larger set of problems that are going to be very discouraging. We need a big national project that will boost our confidence, and also do something for us. And so rebuilding the American railroad system couldn’t be more important.

Now the thing is, are any of the candidates even talking about this, in either party at any level of the political spectrum? And the answer is “no.” So you have to ask yourself, why is that? Again, I don’t think it’s a conspiracy, I think it’s sheer, obdurate cluelessness.

And there is a history in this country, it’s not hard to look back and see previous precedents of great, nationwide projects, from the WPA...

Well, the City Beautiful movement, which you mentioned, which was not a government sponsored project, it was a consensus among the private world, the government world, everybody agreed that it was necessary to make American cities great. And now it’s necessary to retrofit the United States for an energy-scarcer world, and we’re not even beginning to think about it. And I think there’s an explanation for that, too.

Let me ask you, because my next question involves the psychology – you’ve talked a lot [in your writing] about “the psychology of previous investment,” of the fact that as a nation we’re so wrapped up in our current status quo – as Vice President Cheney has said, “The American way of life is non-negotiable.” And yet, there’s no easily obvious replacement for cheap oil.

Yeah, there isn’t. And much of the thinking and talking that is now going on about alternative fuels, is delusional; for example, the ethanol situation. As a Pennsylvania farmer put it to me last winter, “We’re going to take the last six inches of Midwestern topsoil and burn it in our gas tanks.” We may even starve if we pursue this thing far enough. It’ll definitely be a contest between people eating and automobiles, filling their gas tanks. But to get back to your point, you mention “the psychology of previous investment,” and I think this is a very important point. One of the reasons we’re having such a poor discussion about these problems is because we’ve put so much of our national wealth – and even our spirit – into this American Dream living arrangement of car dependency and national chain retail and all of the accessories and furnishings of it, that we can’t imagine letting go of it, or reforming it, or changing it.

It’s almost like the problem is too big for the average person to wrap their brain around, so they just pretend it isn’t there.

Yes, that’s true, and as a practical matter, most Americans are so deeply invested in the furnishings of the suburban living arrangement, you know, most Americans who own their own homes, that’s where most of their wealth is located, in the ownership of a suburban house. And if you’re living 28 miles outside of Denver, or Minneapolis, or if you’re living 17 miles outside of Glens Falls, it’s going to be very hard for you to imagine living differently.

The mall is going to be very far away when gas is either ten dollars a gallon, or unavailable altogether.

Everything’s going to be far away. We’re simply not going to be able to get around. And other things are going to be happening at the same time. It’s not as though just one thing will be changing. A lot of people write to me and say “Oh, won’t we just be telecommuting from our houses?” Well, one of the things that will be happening is that the American economy will be hemorrhaging jobs. A lot of positions and vocations and professions are going to be decimated. And so you’ll have people sitting in their McHouses 28 miles outside of Dallas, twiddling their thumbs, wondering how they’re going to feed their families. And wondering when the repo man is going to knock on their door, because that’s a whole other issue, which is something that’s happening simultaneously with the ramping up of the permanent energy crisis, is that the housing bubble is crashing, or deflating.

A lot of what’s going on in the United States right now is based on wishing. Not on thinking, but on wishing. And there’s a tremendous wish out there that the housing collapse wouldn’t be so. That it’s not happening. That maybe it’ll turn around. And the builders are certainly sitting out there, hoping that it’ll turn around and that they’ll get their production back up again, but I think what you’re going to see is this: This is truly the end of the cycle. The production home builders are not coming back. They’re going to go down, for good. Indeed, the entire suburban development pattern is over. And we’re going to have to occupy the terrain of North America much differently than we have in the last 70 years. And it’s going to be an enormous trauma for us to even process the need to do this, and the resistance will be huge. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that we’ll see an enormous political campaign to prop up the entitlements of the suburban living arrangement long after it is self-evident that it can’t be sustained. And that in itself will be an exercise in futility that may waste many of our remaining national resources, including our national capital.

Whatever capital remains in our economic system, that is money, to be invested, when the housing crash bubbles out and all of the things associated with it implode, we’re going to need money to rebuild the railroad system, we’re going to need money to help people move from parts of the country that are no longer going to be very useful to live in, to other parts. I worry very much that this process is not going to be very orderly.

You talk about the problem of people counting on wishes rather than solid realities, and something that you talk about is the idea that technology will somehow rescue us from a lack of energy, that energy somehow equals technology.

Yeah, this is one of the reigning delusions of the moment, that technology and energy are the same, that they’re interchangeable, and that if you run out of one, you just substitute the other. And nothing could be further from the truth. And we’re going to get into tremendous trouble in believing this. You can see the origin of this, it comes from a century of having one really snazzy technological achievement after another, and there have been, obviously, a whole lot of them, and things that really have given us a lot of pleasure and a lot of convenience; everything from cell phones to DVDs to cars that are really reliable, et cetera. So these things have been very magical, and it’s given the public the idea that there’s an endless supply of magic, and that it’s called technology. And that if you run into a problem with anything else, you just plug in the magic technology.

I actually had this experience when I gave a talk at the Google Corporation in Silicon Valley, and I began to understand where this comes from, too, by the way, part of this delusional thinking. Because when I finished my talk, the Google people in the audience by the way were all executives and higher-up engineers and stuff, and a lot of these people were young people under 30 who had become millionaires working for Google because they got in on the ground floor four or five years ago, and they grew with the company and got stock options, so, here they are millionaires at 28. Anyway, I gave my talk, and we had comments and questions. And there were no questions, just comments. And the comment was all the same. One after another these people, in one way or another, got up and said “Like, dude, we’ve got technology.” Meaning, “you’re a jerk.”

And what I began to realize was that this is a form of grandiose thinking, delusional grandiose thinking coming from people who have been so personally successful for moving little pixels around the screen with a mouse, that they think that this is the sovereign remedy for all the problems of the world. And the scary thing about it is that these are among the most intelligent, well-educated people in America, working at the highest level of American technological enterprise. And they don’t know the difference, how do you expect Joe Sixpack to know the difference? So, this is a matter of leadership. We’re getting poor leadership not just from the political sector but from the business sector, which is giving people the mistaken idea that if you run out of energy, you just plug in technology, and it’s a very tragic belief.

What’s the place, if any, that you see for alternative fuels? You talked a little bit about ethanol, a lot of people are buying hybrid cars, what do you see as the role of [alternative fuel sources]?

Well, this is actually an interesting point, because it’s the essence of the problem. And there are two parts of it. Part one is this: No combination of alternative fuels or systems for using them is going to allow us to keep on running America the way we’ve been running it. We are not going to run Wal-Mart, Walt Disney World and the Interstate Highway System on any combination of wind, solar, biodiesel, ethanol, used french fry potato oil, tar sand byproducts, or anything that we know of right now. Including nuclear. We’re going to have to make other arrangements for all the major activities of life. All the complex systems that we depend on, including agriculture, the way we produce our food, the way we inhabit the terrain, the way we do commerce and trade, the way we do education. All these major systems are going to have to change pretty severely.

Now, the real key to this is something that you said, which was, you asked me about the hybrid cars, and this is the big problem. We’ve got to talk about something besides how we’re going to run the cars. We’re going to have to get over this. We’re going to have to overcome this obsession with the cars. Because, any way you cut it, we’re going to be driving fewer miles, in fewer vehicles, fewer times, every day. The car is going to be a diminished presence in our life. And the important thing to focus on is not just how we’re going to run the cars, it’s how we’re going to get the other things in our life together. How we’re going to get a railroad system together, so people don’t have to drive from Plattsburgh to Syracuse. How we’re going to fix the agriculture system so we’re not dependent on the 3,000-mile Caesar salad, or the fruits and vegetables that are coming from New Zealand and South America. We’re going to have to grow more of our food closer to home. How are we going to do that?

For the entirety of the 20th century, mankind found a way to harness fossil fuel; that was like an enormous gift from the world, but it never occurred to anybody that there would come a day when it would just run out. And we don’t even need to worry about when it runs out, because it’s going to get to the point where it’s going to cost more than a barrel of oil to take a barrel of oil out of the earth.

To get the remaining oil, yeah. Whatever that is.

So it’s not running completely out of oil [that’s the issue]...

Exactly. People misunderstand this. It’s not about running out of oil, it’s how the complex systems that we depend on start to wobble and falter and fail, once you get over the peak production point and start sliding down the slippery slope of depletion.

And it’s important to note, from all apparent evidence, we are either at that point now or will be in – a year or two?

You know, I would accept the argument that we’re at that point, because the only place in the world right now where there’s really any question of whether they are at peak production has been Saudi Arabia.

And do we have any reason to believe that we would be getting accurate forecasts from the Saudi Arabians?

No, the answer is implicit in your question, because the Saudi Arabian oil company Aramco is a nationalized oil company, and they basically treat their production information as state secrets. Much of their production and reserve information, meaning how much oil they have left in the ground, they lie a lot about what their reserves are. We do know how much oil has been coming out of there. Because once it’s loaded onto the tankers, and it gets to its destinations, we know we can add up the number of barrels that have come out of Saudi Arabia. And one thing we know, is that they seem to have peaked in 2006 at about 9.6 million barrels a day in production. They are now at about 8.4 million barrels a day, so their production is down pretty steeply.

Earlier I said four percent, it’s more like ten percent, year over year, from 2006. With the price of oil ramping up remorselessly, you’d think that they would have every incentive for producing more, and yet they’re not. Now, there are technical reasons for us to believe that they’re having problems with production, and they have to do with several things. One is that 60 percent of their oil production is dependent on the largest ever found, the Gwar Oil Field; the Cantarell field in Mexico is number two, Gwar is number one. It’s fifty years old, meaning it’s a very old oil field. It’s been in production for a long time. Fifty years of production is generally way over the point where oil fields tend to peak. They tend to peak at about 30 to 40 years. So there’s that. There’s the fact that they’re using increasingly tremendous amounts of salt water injection to push the oil out of the ground, and more and more, what they’re getting is sort of oil-tinted seawater. Increasingly they’re getting more water and less oil.

And so, we have a lot of reasons to believe that the Saudis are actually pooping out, and if they’re out, then there’s no question that the world has peaked. What happens next is, what happens on the slippery slope of depletion? And what we’re beginning to see is, the oil markets themselves are among the complex systems that start to wobble. And we’re seeing that in the export picture. Because there will still be a lot of oil produced, but, it may not get to the people who want it, some of the people who want it, like us, perhaps the people in Europe. There’ll certainly be a tug-of-war between the people in Asia and the people in Europe and North America. And we don’t know how that’s going to resolve or play out.

It’s not likely to be a civil dispute, I would think.

Well, no, I’m not saying we’re going to go to war with China, India and Japan…

But saying something like “The American way of life is non-negotiable,” that doesn’t really indicate that diplomacy is the first tack.

Well, Dick Cheney, yeah, it was kind of an obtuse statement, although, and I didn’t vote for Dick Cheney, but in the defense of that utterance, we have to remember it was made in the face of 9/11, and a political leader has to get up and say something that will boost the confidence of people who are discouraged about something, and so he made that remark. It was an unfortunate remark that kind of resounded over the following six years.

It’s a somewhat dire picture that can be painted, as I mentioned at the start.

Let me give you an example of how these things are intertwined. We were talking a few moments ago about the exporting and importing nations, you know, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Mexico, Venezuela, et cetera, they all send oil to the U.S., Europe, China, Japan. And there is likely to be a pretty stiff contest for the remaining oil in the world. Now, one of the implications of that – not necessarily that we’re going to go to war with other countries – but for one thing our trade relations are certainly going to change.

The whole American retail system has been dependent on this 12,000 mile manufacturing supply line to the slave-labor factories of Asia, for all those $19.00 plastic salad shooters that they send over here to Wal-Mart. And one of the things we’ll see is that those 12,000 mile supply lines of cheap merchandise will change. And then we’ll be stuck in America having destroyed our local retail infrastructure over the last 40 years, with nothing but chain stores that don’t function very well. Moreover, the chain stores like the Wal-Marts and the Targets, et cetera, and even to a significant extent the big supermarket chains, they’re going to get into tremendous trouble with trucking, with just moving this stuff around.

Wal-Mart’s whole system relies on what they call “the warehouse on wheels,” which is the incessant circulation of thousands upon thousands of 18-wheel tractor-trailer trucks carrying the merchandise from the loading docks of San Pedro, California to the Wal-Marts in Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Orlando, and we’re going to have a lot of trouble keeping those diesel trucks going. At least at a cost that will make it possible for the chain stores to operate profitable. And that will make all the difference, because if Wal-Mart can’t make a profit on its activities, it’s not going to be in business that long. They’re not in the charity business; they’re not giving stuff away to people, although it may have seemed that way over the last ten years.

So, you can see how the oil import-export problem is directly connected to our everyday lives and how we get stuff.

Let me say this bluntly, because, and I know you know this, and I think it’s true – you scare some people. So let me ask you – I think we’ve painted a worst-case scenario. If, as a nation, we’re able to turn things around, to wrap our brains around the situation that we face, what could be the best-case scenario as of where we are at, right now, today?

That’s a tough question. I have to say this: All of our wishes about alternative fuels and things like that, I think are going to leave us pretty disappointed. They’re not going to do what we wish them to do. If we do wind power, my guess is it will be on the household level or the neighborhood level at best. We’re not going to put up a whole lot of 400-unit wind farms all around the country. That’s not going to happen.

I think that at this point we’ve gone so far that it’s really a question of what kind of disorder we’re going to enter. And I think it will be different regionally. I wrote in my book The Long Emergency that the different parts of the United States present a kind of a different picture. I’ve maintained for quite a few years that the Sunbelt is going to get into a lot of trouble. Its difficulties will be in exact proportion to the prosperity that it enjoyed in the last 30 years. Places like Phoenix and Las Vegas are going to dry up and blow away. Because on top of sheer power/energy problems, they’re going to have water problems, they’re going to have problems with a contest between different ethnic groups over the territory. What will happen in Phoenix and the southwest generally is that there will be a contest between Anglos and Hispanics over who owns the territory. And eventually they’ll discover that the region will support no large population of any ethnic group. That’s what will be the outcome of that. So, the Sunbelt is in trouble, the eastern or “wet Sunbelt” has additional problems. I’m more optimistic about the Northeast and upper Midwest.

Let me stop you there, because you have talked in your books very specifically about how you think when The Long Emergency really settles in, people in our area of the country, the Hudson Valley and the Northeastern United States, may have a better shot than Las Vegas, the Sunbelt areas , at adjusting to the changes that are coming. What do you think are the particular strengths here in the Hudson Valley and the Northeast?

We have a lot of water, both for drinking and doing other activities. We have some pretty good potential for generating electricity locally. I know in my area, you go by the old, very small-scale electric power stations from the early 20th century on the Battenkill and other streams, and the dams have been breached. The power stations are all decommissioned and the generators have been taken out for salvage.

There’s a certain charm, though, to seeing those remnants of the previous power systems. And we need to wise up about that.

Yeah, we do. There’s charm in a lot of ways just from knowing that a locality could depend on itself for power; that you didn’t have to be at the mercy of a gigantic grid that depended on hydro-electric from 1,500 miles away in Quebec or something. The idea of living locally, itself, is something that has been lost to the extent that few people in America have any sense of real community or allegiance to where they are. And that has been damaged in so many ways and so many dimensions that it would take a whole other show to talk about that.

But getting back to the Northeast, we can generate some electricity here. Not as much as we’re used to, but some. And they can do that in the Southwest, too, but I think with solar, perhaps, theoretically, but I think they’ll be overwhelmed with other problems.

The recurring theme, I think, is that things are going to have to be at a smaller scale.

Absolutely; also, we have good agricultural land here. Good farmland. It is deeply underutilized. We’re coming out of this era where dairy farming has really come to an end, and a lot of the farmland that is still out there is either derelict, being overgrown with the sumacs and the poplars, or it’s being used for suburban development or chain stores or parking lots. That’s going to come to an end, by the way. We don’t need anymore commercial infrastructure. That’s over with.

We’re beginning to see the birth of a new, local, smaller-scaled agriculture as people, for example, move into Washington County [New York], and the places that used to be dairy farms, now they’re producing lambs on a small scale, they’re producing market vegetables on a small scale. They’re not all making it, some of these people have better skills than others and they’re doing better, but we’re going to see a different kind of agriculture. Something that people forget in this area is that dairy farming is not what has always happened here. Dairy farming itself is a product of 20th century technology; because without electric milking machines and bulk refrigeration, and transport by truck, you didn’t really have the same kind of dairy industry. People couldn’t run herds of cows larger than 50 head before the electrification of the farm.

The cultural memory of what farming was in this part of the country is very short. And we’re going to discover that we’re capable of doing a much more mixed kind of farming, and we’re going to have to, whether we like it or not.

You know, it’s going to be a tough time to get through, and I know from reading your books that the population numbers may change globally over 25- to 50-year period, if this is the worst-case scenario. But you kind of see, on the other end of things – I don’t know if you read Bill McKibben’s recent book Deep Economy --

I haven’t gotten to it yet, but I know McKibben and I talk to him.

It’s a good book, and he talks a lot about re-engaging with your own community, being a part of your own culture, not being off in, as you call it, “the little house in the woods,” away from everything and everybody that really should be a part of your life. You wonder if, after all is said and done, when you return to small cities and towns where people are walking to work and walking to get their groceries and going to farmer’s markets – you wonder if it wouldn’t be a better world.

I have wondered that in many ways. I think that just the frantic scope of life in America today has taken a tremendous toll on our individual spirits. I travel around the country a lot, I do a lot of university lectures all over, and I see how people live in Dallas and Orlando, and the Bay Area of California and Los Angeles and even Las Vegas. I’ve been all over this country, and you know, I go to these places and I can’t believe how depressing it would be to have to live in them. And to have to spend two hours and 15 minutes a day going to and coming back from work on some Texas freeway. It would just be soul-killing. So, yeah, I agree with you. I think that there’re going to be a lot of trade-offs. I think there’ll be less canned entertainment, but there will be more people making their own culture in their own community. There will be fewer kiwi fruits from Chile, but perhaps we’ll have better localized cheese production.

I try to imagine this, actually, in my next book. I wrote a novel that is set in the post-oil future, in Washington County, New York. And why? Because I’ve lived in this area for 30 years, and I know the area pretty well, so I wanted to depict it there. So, this novel is set in that period. The electricity is not working too well…

The thing that interests me about the novel, and it’s going to be called World Made By Hand, it’s coming out from Atlantic Monthly Press in March of 2008; when you announced the book a few weeks ago, it hit me that this is really is the coming together of those two writing careers that you’ve had that I talked about [earlier], writing fiction and writing about the state of our nation. It seems obvious in retrospect, but it’s not a career path that I would have personally seen for your writing. Where did the idea come from?

Well, I never gave up the idea of writing fiction. In fact, I published a novel in 2004 which kind of went under the whole radar screen of America, not too many people got it, although I thought it was a pretty good performance…

Maggie Darling.

Yeah, it was my Martha Stewart novel, about a woman like Martha, it’s wasn’t about Martha, but it was about a character like her, going through a life meltdown. It was a funny book, but nobody really “got it.” Anyway, I’ve never given up on the idea of writing fiction, but I did think it was important to try to imagine what this world would be. In part, because this public discussion we’re having about these problems is so lame. And I think people need to be prompted to have some frame of reference for how me might think about what’s happening to us. You know, I was discouraged from doing it by the people who I’m in business with. My literary agent didn’t want me to write fiction, because he thought “you’re better known as a non-fiction writer,” so…

They’re looking for The Long Emergency II.

Right. And my publisher was looking for the same thing, and so they didn’t really greet this idea with a lot of enthusiasm at first, but I think once I got the manuscript in, they really liked it. And they saw what it was about and I think it may grab the public’s imagination. There have been several other instances of novels, fiction works, that have come out in the last couple years trying to depict a dystopian future. And they’ve been pretty bleak. You know, Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road, for example, about this father and son stumbling around this post-nuclear wasteland. My book is not bleak. It’s actually a rather lyrical, pastoral kind of setting; the world has become a much more tranquil place in a lot of ways, although there’s a lot of action. The United States is still recognizable, though an awful lot of things have changed.

Is there a lot of real-life research involved in looking at the trends and how [they] would inform the coming future?

Well, I wouldn’t say that, other than in the sense that I had already done so much research for these other books that I was able to form, for me, a pretty coherent sense of what this world would be like. And as in any work of fiction, the setting or the fictional world you’re creating is a kind of self-organizing system. Once you start introducing things into it, that establishes what that world is like. For example, very early in the book, I realized that these people were not riding bicycles. Why? Well, for two reasons. There are an awful lot of materials and components that they couldn’t get to keep the bikes going. Especially the rubber. And, the pavements were so badly broken up. We assume that the pavements would be just as smooth as they are now, but in fact, it’s rough.

It is now in some places.

Right. And it’s just not easy. In fact, going back into history, the road improvement project in America really started in the late 19th century with the bicyclists, who campaigned tirelessly – no pun intended – for better roads. In fact, they were at it long before the car people came along around 1915. So, trying to imagine this world, I was surprised by a lot of things that happened. Another thing that happens in the book is that they don’t have any wheat. They can’t get wheat. And they’re just eating cornbread all the time, and they have other things, they have buckwheat, they have barley, oats and stuff, but they can’t get wheat. Trade has been severely curtailed, and you can’t grow wheat in a lot of parts of the Northeast, because there’s a persistent disease in the ground called rust, which has been here for 300, 400 years, ever since the early colonists came over, and it tends to hide out in a lot of common weeds that have a symbiotic relationship with this wheat disease. So the people in my book are not eating – they don’t have regular bread. And they’re always complaining about the fact that there’s nothing but cornbread.

It is a kind of ripping yarn of a book, it turns out to only secondarily be about the future. It’s mostly what’s happening to the characters and events in the book. And there are things that are happening that are kind of fascinating; one of the things that happens in the book, one of the characters is a rich plantation owner, who’s absorbed the farms of the other people around him who have failed, and sort of taken them on as vassals and serfs. He’s developing a kind of neo-feudal relationship with the people in that part of his community. And he’s been operating trade boats between Albany and that part of the Hudson River in Washington County, and one of his trade boats has disappeared, along with its crew. It hasn’t returned. So my protagonist is sent down to Albany with a bunch of other guys to find it, and rescue the crew. And we begin to see what’s happened to the rest of the world, because he hasn’t been out of his town for quite a few years.

This was originally one of the questions I was going to ask you in the beginning, and we kind of made our way past it, but I think it’s a good way to wrap things up. Obviously, you’ve been a writer and a journalist for decades, and four of your last five books, and your next book, are about the decaying state of affairs because of the over-reliance on oil and what you call “the fiasco of suburbia.” The subject – and this has to be something that you think about – this subject has altered the trajectory of your career as a writer, from where it could have gone 25, 30 years ago. If you could talk to yourself when you were just starting out as a writer and say “this is where you’re going,” how do you think as a young man you would have felt about the way circumstance sort of took your career?

Oh, I think I would have been perfectly okay with it. In fact, I have very, very vivid memories of working for Capital Newspapers in Albany in 1973, and driving around The Northway [Interstate I-87, which runs from Albany to the Canadian border], driving up to Saratoga and Glens Falls sometimes, and on a Friday night seeing all these headlights coming at me. And this was around the time of the OPEC embargo incident, and just thinking, “This is going to come to an end. We’re not going to be able to live like this forever. And it’s a huge problem, and we’re not paying any attention to it.” And if I had known back then that I was going to devote a substantial amount of my career to writing about it, I think that it is legitimately, really the largest issue of our time. How we are going to live. And how we are going to make a transition from the magic of the 20th century to the reality of the 21st century. So I’m completely at ease with it. I hope I don’t drop dead tomorrow, but I think I’ve accomplished enough in my life.

I’m glad to hear that. I read The Geography of Nowhere, I think when it came out, 1993; that, and your subsequent books have totally changed the way that I see the world around me. It’s been a wild ride so far, reading the books that you’ve published.

How old are you, Alan?

41.

So you’re a generation ahead of me, or behind me, which way is it? One of the things that I always marveled about with my parents, my father was born in 1917, my mother born in 1920. And they passed away within 26 hours of each other in 2001, before 9/11. But I always marveled at the fact that they saw the entire 20th century extravaganza in all of its glory. And for them, that was so normative, that they could never conceive of it coming to an end, or us having to live differently, or of things that were present in their lives not being around anymore. You know, my mom grew up through the entire communications revolution, from there being no radio, really, when she was a little baby, to the DVD generation and everything in-between. And that was the whole climbing up the great hill of magic of the 20th century.

“The American Dream” is an interesting phrase, if you think about it redefined as the oil century.

It also changed a lot. You know, the American Dream as I understand it, in perhaps its original form, was really about the idea of being able to start with pretty much nothing and make a life for yourself. And not necessarily become a billionaire, but to be able to prosper. But now the American Dream has become a strange, particular entitlement to a particular set of trophies. A certain kind of house, a certain kind of car, a certain set of entertainment appliances. And you know, that’s a pretty limited way to think of yourself. The spiritual side of this country has suffered an awful lot in the last 60 years.

Reading your books on the subject and Bill McKibben’s book recently, again, thinking that it could be a better world when all is said and done, if people re-scale their lives, if society re-scales itself to a more sustainable level, it doesn’t seem like it’s as bad as it might first appear.

No, in fact, I’ve been sort of reflecting lately; I’ve been doing a lot of bike rides around Greenfield Center [New York], in what was once pretty much a farm district outside of Saratoga. It’s become somewhat suburbanized, but there’s still a residue of farms there. One of the things that I think about often is that we’re going to be inhabiting the rural land differently. Because it’s going to take more human attention to do farming. There’s going to be fewer machines, and more people out there. And more people living in proximity to each other, and in cooperation with each other.

And more people, by the way, perhaps feeling that they’re actually contributing something.

Absolutely. Working shoulder to shoulder with people they know, at things that are important for their survival. But you know, what’s impressed me also is the loneliness of the contemporary landscape; the loneliness of the rural landscape today, which is deeply uninhabited by people participating in doing rural things. One of the weird things about suburbia was it allowed people to live an urban lifestyle in the rural setting. And that’s not going to be possible in the future. People who decide to live in the country are going to have to be working at country things, from now on. And there’s whole other discussion about what will happen to our cities and what will happen to our towns. I think that our towns here in this area are going to be coming back. I think Glens Falls, Hudson Falls, Fort Edward, Greenwich, Cambridge, those places, I think, have reached their low point and will be coming back up, again, as local living becomes more important.

So all is not bleak.

No, not at all.

---

Visit James Howard Kunstler’s website at www.kunstler.com.

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Friday, August 03, 2007

 
The Friday Briefing -- Not much to discuss this morning; yesterday I did one of those once-or-twice in a lifetime radio interviews which went spectacularly well, I thought, and which I am in the middle (literally, I'm halfway through) of transcribing and hopefully will have up here by Monday. It'll also be on the ADD writeblog at the same time, given that it's not about comics, and that's my new repository for my non-comics writing. But it's a piece I think you'll enjoy reading, if you spend any amount of time here at all.

Something that is about comics, and that I'm happy to direct you to, is Rob Vollmar's San Diego Comicon wrap-up. I wish I'd been in San Diego just to get to meet Rob in person. That would have made the trip worthwhile all in itself. His recollections are intimate, funny and well worth a look.

Stop by James Howard Kunstler's website for a photo essay and commentary on his daily bike route. I find this fascinating for a number of reasons. I used to live maybe a mile from there, on Hyspot Road in Greenfield Center. Well do I remember the difficult hill he describes early on, especially the winter day I got stuck in an icestorm halfway up that hill and my car started sliding back, back, back...I had to sit on tenterhooks until a sander came along and left enough salt and sand for me to get some traction and get the hell out of there. Also, the route is about two or three miles from my current comic book shop, Comic Depot on Route 9N in the Stewarts Plaza, just a bit north of the places Kunstler describes. And finally, I enjoyed the piece because I enjoy the hell out of pretty much everything Jim Kunstler writes, as I've mentioned here in the past. He has a new novel coming out in March of '08, and I'll be talking about that a bit more in the days ahead.

And that is all I have for you at the moment. More next week, I promise.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

 
More on Tom Snyder -- Oh, this is good. Click over to Isn't Life Terrible's Tom Snyder audio archives, MP3s of some noteworthy Snyder radio shows.

Things like this make me love the internet more than words can easily express. Thanks to Don at ILT for archiving these great segments.

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Me and Tom -- Tom Snyder, who died this week at the age of 71, will likely be best remembered for one of two things; either his groundbreaking late-night Tomorrow Show that followed Johnny Carson for years, or the Dan Aykroyd parody Snyder inspired. Aykroyd’s depiction of Snyder was fevered and bizarre, all tics and mannerisms, cigarettes and waving hands, but it had the ring of truth: Tom Snyder was strange to watch on TV. He was riveting, to be sure, and a damned good interviewer. But he looked odd on television, and Aykroyd’s shtick was as much homage as it was parody.

I was seven years old when Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow debuted on NBC, and while I did tend to stay up late to catch Carson as a young teen, Snyder was mostly known to me as the show that was coming on as I shut off the TV at 12:30 to go to bed. Tomorrow ended in 1982, still a little ways off from when the 12:30 slot would draw me in, not coincidentally because of the man chosen to succeed Snyder, David Letterman.

Letterman’s first NBC series had been a daytime variety/talk show that followed The Today Show sometime around 1979-1980. I was 13, I think, when the show debuted, and completely open and ready for Letterman’s subversive, deadpan sarcasm. It imprinted itself on my mind, and was a formative influence on my personality. So now you know who to blame.

But Snyder was someone whose cultural impact I had just missed by inches. I was just too young to care about his interviews, which skewed more to current events than to the laughs I would have been looking for in my early teens. Letterman was much more my cup of tea. So Snyder’s heyday flew almost entirely off my personal cultural radar.

But fate had other plans.

I started working at my first radio job in 1986, while still enrolled in college working toward a radio broadcasting certificate from the local Community College. The job was at WKAJ/WASM, a family-owned and operated AM/FM combo in Saratoga Springs, New York. The AM station was the more popular and influential of the two at the time, with a live air staff most hours of the day and a two-person full-time news department strongly focused on community news rather than national issues. I joined the news staff part-time to supplement the efforts of the two full-timers, Mike Hare and Dina Cimino. As a fill-in anchor and reporter, I never knew from day to day whether I would be spending hours at a City Council meeting hoping for an interview with the mayor, or anchoring morning or afternoon news, or any number of other tasks a part-time radio station employee will have visited upon him. It was a time of great learning, though, and I liked the people I worked with and the jobs I was asked to do.

In 1987, I left WKAJ for my first full-time job, as the overnight guy at a country station coincidentally owned by Mike Hare’s cousin Ed Stanley, WSCG in Corinth, New York. That job lasted less than a year, in large part because I hated it. I hated the music, I hated the building, and I hated the stench of Stanley’s cigars, which permeated every molecule of the building, and anyone and anything trapped within its cheap, airless confines.

I returned to WKAJ/WASM, which was now under new ownership. WASM, which had been an older-skewing Music of Your Life station was now transformed to WQQY, 102 Double Q, a pop/top 40 station. For the first time, the FM station was emphasized over the AM, and live DJs were brought in. The AM station, WKAJ, was set to carry a new late-night radio talk show hosted by Tom Snyder, and I was tapped to be the board operator for the show.

What that means is that I had to be behind the controls for the full three hours of the broadcast every night from 10 PM to 1 AM, turning the live feed up and down when demanded by the format of the show, to play local commercials and read the weather forecast.

Being a part-time board op at a small-town radio station is perhaps the lowest rung on the totem pole of radio. But I was 21 years old and full of enthusiasm for my chosen career, radio broadcasting. Soon, I found myself equally enamored of Tom Snyder. The show was a blast to listen to, and I was getting paid to do it.

As I say, this was not anyone’s definition of a dream radio job, but I loved it. And more than that, I had a grandiose, if self-parodying image of my importance in the grand scheme of things. I appropriated an unused, dusty desk in a far corner of the newsroom and transformed it into The Snyderdesk. A publicity photo of Tom on the wall over my workspace looked down in approval on what I was creating. I began issuing memos to the staff about what “Tom and I” needed to properly perform our jobs, and the staff at the radio station found it amusing that this young kid was making so much out of so very, very little.

I was joking, of course. I still took my actual job duties seriously; in addition to running the board for Snyder, I still did part-time news reporting and anchoring, filled in for vacationing disk jockeys, and whatever else management asked me to do. During this time I worked with some of the most dynamic and unique individuals ever to work in radio in our part of the country, including the aforementioned Mike Hare, the very British David Baker, and account executive and later general manager Jerry Shepard, who was to become someone I admired more than just about anyone I ever worked with in radio in the entirety of my career. I’ve often said of Jerry that he was “the only man I ever knew,” and I still think this is true most days.

But when I wasn’t working on actual radio station business, I was spending a good deal of time building up my Snyderdesk mythology. And one day, on a lark, I sent a sheaf of my Snyderdesk memos off to Tom Snyder. I thought he’d get a kick out of them.

Apparently he did.

One night, while running the board for the show, Tom started discussing my Snyderdesk memos during the somewhat free-wheeling third hour from midnight to 1 AM. He may have eased into the topic sideways, if I recall correctly, so that it only gradually dawned on me that he not only had received the memos, but had actually read them.

As that realization began to sink in, the telephone began ringing in the studio. Moments later, I was talking to Tom Fucking Snyder coast-to-coast on national radio.

I’d be lying if I said I remember much about the conversation. Wikipedia notes that Snyder often used his third hour to chat with his “legion of fans,” occasionally including well-known admirers like David Letterman and Ted Koppel. No doubt Tom sensed the genuine adoration that was a part of my Snyderdesk hyperbole, and he was warm and full of laughter as he read some of the memos on the show and asked me about the reaction to my efforts among my co-workers. This conversation, which lasted maybe 10 minutes, remains one of the highlights of my broadcasting career, just one of the most thrilling and enjoyable moments of my life. And certainly the first time I realized that if you enjoy the work of a well-known celebrity and approach them with honesty and no hidden motives, amazing things can happen.

I think I may have had one more on-air chat with Tom Snyder before the short-lived radio show came to an end, but it could not have been as magical or memorable to me as that first, incredible Snyderdesk chat. I did remain a genuine fan, and always made it a point to check out his later TV efforts, which were every bit as odd, unique and compelling as anything else Snyder ever accomplished. On radio or TV, he was a good host, but he was a great broadcaster.

One last anecdote that doesn’t really fit anywhere, but I am sure this happened in the latter days of the Snyder radio show.

When you are a radio board op, the rewards are few (if any), and the burdens many. Snyder seemed to understand this well, and often talked about the network of radio stations and dedicated board ops that made it possible for him to speak to the nation. If any of them were like me, they lost a lot of sleep due to the show’s odd hours, but they felt amply rewarded by the fact that Snyder cared enough to mention us on the air on a regular basis. You could tell he was a decent, empathetic soul.

As time wore on, Snyder began actually talking to the board ops after the broadcast each night. When you would turn down the knob that made the show live on the air, if you turned it all the way to the left until you felt a mild pop on the knob, you had turned it into “cue,” which meant you could now hear what was happening on that channel on a private speaker in the studio. Only someone standing in the studio could hear what came out of the speaker when it was in cue, and Snyder, a longtime broadcaster, knew that some of us would have the knob in cue, and he started talking to us every night.

It only went on for two or three minutes, after the show ended at 12:58:10 every morning. Tom no doubt was ready to go home, and certainly he knew we board ops were, but it became a nightly ritual for him to entertain just us board ops, just for a few minutes.

One night he was talking to us (we couldn’t talk back, this was strictly a one-way conversation) about a new publicity photo the network had ordered. “You should see this thing,” Snyder said, in his loud and blustery, yet intimate manner. “I’m wearing the biggest goddamned set of cans you’ve ever seen!” Cans, for those not in broadcasting, are headphones. Because it was a radio show, they wanted Snyder to wear headphones for his publicity headshot. This is how stupid network executives can be.

Snyder’s tale of the headshot was funny and delightful, as his board-op pep talks almost always were. But what Tom hadn’t counted on was that some board ops might not have turned the knob all the way to the left to put the show from live into cue. In fact, apparently some stations didn’t turn off the feed at all that night. Whether it was a sloppy or confused board op, or perhaps malfunctioning automation at stations that didn’t have live board ops, Snyder’s profane complaint about the “goddamned cans” and probably more damning, his implicit criticism of his higher-ups, was apparently broadcast on some percentage of stations that carried the broadcast.

So, that was pretty much the end of the private board-op pep-talks. Snyder humbly apologized soon thereafter, and no longer did turning the knob into cue at the end of the show provide the small measure of private joy it once did. Our secret little clique of board ops across the country, all led by Tom Snyder, had been disbanded by circumstance.

Like the entirety of Tom Snyder’s broadcasting career, it was fun while it lasted.

This one is for you Tom, in sincere admiration and love. You were, as I said, a great broadcaster, and I will never forget those late night chats with all us board ops, or the one special night that you took the time to talk only to me, and made me feel like I mattered, like I was somebody. Tom Snyder was a great broadcaster because he understood everyone in the chain, from himself to his guests to his viewers and listeners down to his part-time, small-town board-ops, mattered.

In his latter days, Tom liked to tweak the clichés of technology and hype, and tell his fans to “Fire up a colortini, sit back, relax, and watch the pictures, now, as they fly through the air.” Go ahead, Tom, fire one up. You earned it. Thank you.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

 
Diabetic Again -- This is a post I've been thinking about writing for a week or so now, and I can tell you it won't have anything to do with comics, not directly anyway. So if you're here for the funnybook chit-chat, come back later.

I wrote a couple-three weeks back about how I had experienced a bit of a health scare -- I won't go into the gory details, but something happened one afternoon that sent me immediately to the doctor's office. I was diagnosed with a fairly simple and common infection, and given some antibiotics. Within three or four days, I not only felt fantastic, but I had managed to kick my major, major caffeine habit that I had fostered under many years of working in morning radio. The nurse practitioner that I saw told me that caffeine and alcohol would only aggravate my condition, and as it was pretty painful in the beginning, I didn't want to make it any worse. After the symptoms cleared up, it just seemed like a good idea to kick caffeine once and hopefully for all. So I have gone from drinking 4-8 cans of Diet Mountain Dew per day (the diet version because I am diabetic and sugared sodas are definitely not on the menu for me) to drinking nothing but water, lots of it, and about one bottle of Diet Green Tea (no sugar, no caffeine, plus hopefully some antioxidants) every day.

During my visit to the doctor's office, the subject of my diabetes came up, and here's where it gets complicated and hard to talk about for me. But since I resumed blogging here, I don't feel the need to stick solely to the subject of comics, and I feel like I want this blog to be an honest discussion of whatever is on my mind, so again, feel free to click somewhere else if this is not of interest to you. I'm writing this one for me, really, not for you. Although those of you that stick around, I am extremely grateful to you, and you might even learn something about the arrogance and denial that have fucked up my health a bit. And it even ties into Comic Book Galaxy, to a degree. If you've read this far and keep on reading, and you've followed this site a while, you may even find some questions answered.

Where to start? Well, I was first diagnosed with Type 2 ("adult onset") diabetes on (you'll love this) Friday the 13th of November, 1998. I had been overwhelmed with fatigue and peeing every 30 minutes around the clock for weeks, so I knew something was wrong, but even with a family history of the disease (my mother was diabetic), I was ignorant and arrogant enough to actually hope, when I first went to see the doctor because of these symptoms, that maybe I was just suffering some sort of urinary tract infection.

I wasn't, of course. I found out that day that my blood sugar was 307, 300 percent of what a healthy person's reading would be. The news that I was diabetic hit me, at the grand old age of 32, like a brick to the skull. It was raining that day, and as I drove from the doctor's office to the supermarket, I remembering crying and feeling quite a bit like I had been handed a death sentence.

A lot of that emotion stemmed from the fact that I knew little to nothing about diabetes, despite my mother having had it (at this time she had been dead for four years, a victim of Alzheimer's and brain cancer). When I went to the store I bought healthier foods for the most part, but having yet not had any education about my disease at all, I also bought a big jug of orange juice. Mom had always had one in the fridge, and I realize now it was in case her blood sugar went too low. Orange juice has an enormous amount of sugar in it, so while it's good for reviving you if you're hypoglycemic (as in-control diabetics can sometimes become), for me, hyper-glycemic, it was not a very good thing to be drinking.

Luckily for me, within a week or two I had seen a nutritionist and done everything in my power (thank God for the internet, even in 1998) to learn as much as I could about diabetes. So I soon learned not to drink OJ unless it was medically necessary (and even then, it wouldn't take much to get your sugar back up to normal), and I began a radical diet program that consisted of -- amazing, for an American -- eating fewer calories than I was burning every day. This strict meal plan coupled with mild but committed exercise -- usually a half-hour or so walk every day -- allowed me to lose a mid-size child's worth of weight in less than a year, my blood sugar returned to low enough averages that my doctor cut the amount of diabetic medication I had to take every day, my eyesight improved, my libido returned to an 18-year-old's level, basically, life was incredibly good.

I didn't feel arrogant about it at first. For quite some time -- two or three years, I would say -- I felt extremely lucky. Blessed. I had been diagnosed with an incurable illness (I heard diabetes lumped with AIDS and cancer as incurable illnesses in a radio commercial one day, and it brought me to tears), and I had, through modern medicine and what seems to me now an enormous force of will, managed to bring my blood sugar levels basically to normal. All the complications of the disease -- blindness, amputations, heart disease, death -- seemed a lot further away than they did on that rainy day back in November of 1998.

But, as they do, things changed.

My job changed in late summer of 1999, and I think that's where it began. I had made my 30 minute walk a part of my daily routine at work, using my break time to keep myself healthy. When I switched jobs and started working at an all-news radio station in Albany, I now had to sit in a chair basically for seven or eight hours a day with no opportunity at all for exercise. I more or less stuck to my meal plan, but between the lack of opportunities for movement at work and the two-hour, 110 mile or so commute every day, I was just too exhausted by the end of the day to consider exercising at home.

That all-news radio job lasted about two years, then I decided to move on to a Public Radio station in 2001. The new job actually began a week and a day before the attacks of September 11th. The pay was out-of-this world compared to my Glens Falls radio days, or even the Albany job that immediately preceded it. I was a producer, editor and anchor, and also assignment editor for reporters ("bureau chiefs") over a wide swath of the northeastern United States. So I had mad cash, a lot of responsibility, felt like I was genuinely making a better world through my work in radio (a first in what was then about 15 years in broadcasting), and more or less thought I was on top of the world. As you might guess, I would trace the beginning of my arrogance to this period.

Because I had previously had such great control over my blood sugar, I went from 1998 and testing three or four times a day, to maybe once a day by 2000, and probably once a week or less by 2002 or so. I left the Public Radio station in late summer of 2004 under what I felt were less-than-ideal circumstances, and that's where I think the depression set in, depression that I experienced I would say from that time up until maybe the beginning of this year, 2007. So, for two or three years, beginning in August of 2004, I entered what was probably the darkest and most hopeless period of my life.

I said that this post would intersect with Comic Book Galaxy, and here's where that happens. I'm not going to bother digging into the CBG archives to come up with specific dates, so I admit that some of this may be hazy on exact details, but the crucial point is that sometime in 2005 or 2006, when things started to go wrong here (during the "New Comic Book Galaxy" phase that introduced a ton of new columnists and features), I was just too depressed and up my own ass to keep things on course here. I tried the best I could, because there's nothing in life I love more than this site except my family -- but as problems cropped up and had to be dealt with, my main method of dealing with them was just to end them.

So I fucked up this site quite a bit during this time. Offhand, I would say I owe huge and sincere apologies to Derik Badman, Johnny Bacardi, Mike Sterling, JC Glindmyer, Marc Sobel, Ed Cunard and Shawn Hoke, great contributors all; and all of whom came onboard CBG only to leave suddenly because of my inability to think my way through the various issues that came up during this time. Chris Allen, Rob Vollmar and Chris Hunter were an unbelievable help in trying to help me keep this thing going, but as 2005 rolled into 2006, my posting and ability to manage this site were increasingly sporadic.

I took a new radio job in late April of 2005, a time that coincided almost to the day with the accident that destroyed my red car. And while the decision not to buy a new one was based as much on ideology as budget constraints, I have to say that the lack of freedom was yet another blow to my ego and sense of self. These days I am a lot more philosophical about being carless -- if not proud -- but when the accident happened, it was just more crap to deal with, at a time when I wasn't dealing well with all the crap that was already on my plate.

The new job was stressful at first -- there was a lot to wrap my brain around, because although I had been in radio 19 years at that point, I was now doing things and charged with responsibilities I had never experienced before. The learning curve was steep, but eventually I came to grips with it, and came to love it more than any radio job I have ever had. That was a big part of coming out of what I now realized was probably a pretty deep depression, and for most of 2007, I have felt pretty good about my family and my job, while more or less ignoring my diabetes.

I think it was a combination of arrogance stemming from how quickly and effectively I got it under control circa 1998, and the subsequent improvement I experienced in many areas of my health. And dealing with all the different things I did in radio from 1998 to 2007, I find that it was really easy to just forget the fact that I am diabetic. Any of my fellow diabetics may or may not be shocked when I tell you this, but I don't think I tested my blood sugar more than once or twice a year over the past two or three years.

Physically, I felt fine -- artifically propped up by all that caffeine in the Diet Mountain Dew I drank like water -- and I was actively avoiding my doctor, for a number of reasons. Primarily I assumed -- wrongly -- that my sugar was still under control. He had also been a huge fan of the Public Radio station I worked at, so I was a bit humbled by the fact that I no longer worked there. Also, his very pro-active (and very wise) approach to managing my diabetes was just not something I felt I could deal with during this time, late 2004 to early 2007. So, I went to ground, abandoned totally my monitoring of my disease, and as any diabetic will tell you, when it comes to monitoring your blood sugar, out of sight is out of mind.

When I went in to the doctor's office a few weeks back, that was the beginning of digging my way out of all this. Emotionally I feel much better than I have in years -- I don't think I'm suffering from clinical depression anymore -- and I've started monitoring my blood sugar multiple times daily. My highest fasting blood sugar has been 180, and the lowest, this morning, after a few days back on my proper meds and with some real adjustments to my diet, was 135. But I know I've probably done some damage to my body in the time I was out of touch with my diabetes, and I know I have a lot of work to do before I can start to feel that it's under my control again.

I will say that there could not have come a better time for Michael Moore's Sicko, about the abhorrent state of U.S. health care even for people with insurance. Just in the past three weeks, I have experienced some of the stupidity, contempt, bureaucracy and outright hostility the system here in Los Estados Unidos has for people with serious, life-threatening issues. I have been confronted with a lack of knowledge and thoughtfulness by people in a position to help me, that made me realize a meeker, or poorer person than myself might have just given up. Hell, maybe I would have, myself, if I was still in the depression I was in not that long ago.

There's a scorched-earth war on right now against the health and well-being of anyone in this country who needs health care but isn't spectacularly wealthy. Anyone who tells you different is either lying or incredibly naive. I really wonder how much longer I'll be able to afford to take care of myself and my family, even with both my wife and I working full-time jobs. But the lesson of the past few weeks, and of the past few years of my living in denial about a gravely serious disease I will have the rest of my life, has made me realize more than ever that if I don't take full command of my life and my health, no one else will. On this day before Independence Day, 2007, the message I am getting is that here in the United States, our leaders and our health care system are staggeringly indifferent to the health and safety of the people. Of course, I need to watch out for my own health. Because it's crystal clear that no one else is going to do it, and in fact, the current system would prefer if we all just quietly suffer and die while politicians and pharmacological companies and anyone who profits from this clusterfuck of U.S. health care gets richer, and richer, and richer.

This is not a compassionate nation. In fact, health care is our national catastrophe, and we should all be ashamed. And we should all demand change, right fucking now. The billions we've wasted on the lie that is the Iraq war could have saved millions of lives. Lives not taken in the name of U.S. aggression, and lives of those receiving poor-to-no health care right here at home.

I'm not depressed anymore, I'm just pissed off. And determined to get myself better. This is a big change for me, and I hope you'll consider what you can and should change, yourself. If you're in denial about your health, or if you are in a position to effect or demand change in the way this country cares for its people -- all its people -- I hope you'll do so. If the people of this country can't watch out for each other, it's not a country worth saving. And right now we're all in grave danger, because of a corrupt and dysfunctional health care system. A good country is one that cares for and protects all its people before it wastes it resources elsewhere. This one has a lot of work to do to get where it should be, but luckily there are great examples -- Britain, Canada and France, for example -- of countries that get health care much more right than this one. What's needed is monumental change, which I fear will only be effected by monumental outrage. I'm starting to feel it. Are you?

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