Friday, February 19, 2010
American Terrorists are Still Terrorists -- Go read this great piece at Salon about the media's loathsome reluctance to call people like Joseph Stack, Scott Roeder and Timothy McVeigh what they are: Terrorists.
Labels: real life
Thursday, December 24, 2009
2009: The Year without a Best-Of -- I'm not entirely certain, but I think this is the first year in all my online comics writing that I won't be posting a best-of-the-year list. I think A Drifting Life (Drawn and Quarterly) is the only book that comes immediately to mind as really deserving any kind of call-out as the year's best effort, so I do encourage you to read my review if you haven't already, and read the book for yourself, as it is quite an accomplishment.
I did read a lot of comics I liked this year -- as far as floppies go, Buffy (Dark Horse), Conan (Dark Horse), Godland (Image), Criminal (Marvel/Icon) and The Umbrella Academy all entertained me mightily, but I never seemed to find the time to write about any of them. New League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Top Shelf) by Moore and O'Neill did get my keyboard cooking, and I loved the hardcover reissues of Captain Canuck (IDW) and Alan Moore's Swamp Thing (even despite DC's monumental goof on the most important page of Vol. 1), and of course Fantagraphics continued to make life better with its ongoing Complete Peanuts collections, and their Strange Suspense: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1 was also one of the treasures of the year, filled with tons of the master's weird and wonky comics. (IDW's Art of Ditko also rocked my world).
I also loved but have not yet found the time to write about Top Shelf's two astonishing late-in-the-year hardcover collections, The Complete Essex County and Alec: The Years Have Pants. Two awe-inspiring bricks of great comics that should be on everyone's shelves, and both also available in more affordable softcover editions if you're so inclined.
But my absolute best entertainment of the year was not found in comics in calendar 2009; Star Trek, directed by J.J. Abrams, knocked my socks off in ways I no longer even thought possible. It recaptured the wonder of Trek in ways I haven't felt since The Next Generation's Best of Both Worlds Part One, and was so thrilling and entertaining that it even eventually won over my Trek-hating Star Wars-obsessed 14-year-old son Aaron. Him finally breaking down and watching it with me on DVD (after refusing to see it in the theater with me and truly breaking my heart just a little bit) and actually loving it was literally the best moment of my year. So thanks to J.J. Abrams, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and all involved for giving me back something very important and personal that had been missing from my life for quite a few years.
Well, I said I wasn't going to write a best-of, and technically I don't think I have, but I did want to share with you my thoughts on the year in comics (and Star Trek) as I experienced it, and there you have it. I hope you and yours are enjoying a happy and healthy holiday season, and I wish you all the best in the year ahead.
Monday, March 30, 2009
Pain and Drugs -- Anyone who thinks they understand public health policy and the "war on drugs" needs to read this extraordinary essay by former Albany-area news anchor Ed Dague.
Tuesday, December 02, 2008
My Brother Rob -- I got the news last night that my older brother Rob had died. The funeral is today, although I won't be going. I'm recovering from pneumonia, I am needed at work, and most significantly, I hardly knew the man.
There's a lot of complicated history in my family, but the truth is I only remember seeing Rob three or four times in my entire life. He graduated high school the year I was born, was fighting in Vietnam by the time I could walk and was estranged from our family before I had to shave. I literally remember the day he came home from the war (I was probably around 6), the time our parents drove us from Florida to New York for the birth of his daughter (1978 or 1979, I think -- also the trip where I got a firsthand look at a real comic book store for the first time), and I remember the last time I saw him, an awkward Christmas Eve visit in, I think, 1985.
I remember he tried to reach out on that night, but I was really young and really stupid and really wrapped up in my own adolescent drama by then, and that ended up being the last time I ever saw him. I couldn't tell you much about him other than that he was left pretty angry by his experiences in Vietnam, and, I am sure, rightfully so. He was also angry at my mother because of some pretty fucked up family politics, and although I never took a side in their particular issue, I always (uncharacteristic of me) saw both sides of this particular issue.
My family -- by which I mean the one I was born into, not the one I created with my wife -- was fucked up beyond belief. I'd write more about it now, but it's exhausting just thinking about the tragedy, the lies and cover-ups and broken relationships. I think of that family as six people, more or less -- my parents, my older brother Rob, my older sister Deb, myself and my younger brother Wil. Of those, only the last three are still alive, and like Rob, I think we've all chosen to focus on our own lives and priorities rather than invest in the lies and bullshit of our parents.
But when your wife calls you during dinner to tell you your brother is dead, well, I have to admit that it does give one pause. Hard not to reflect on whatever barely-there relationship you had. Oh, one other memory of my older brother; he never knew he had been adopted. Everyone in the family, me included, eventually knew this, but to the best of my knowledge he never knew.
When our mother died in 1994, my sister wrote her obituary that appeared in the newspaper, and she chose to refer to Rob in the obit as "an adopted son," so he most certainly discovered he was adopted by reading about it in his mother's obituary in the newspaper the day after she died, he not having seen her for a decade or more. I remember feeling bad for him on that day, although I haven't thought much about him since. In his obituary, I learned that his daughter has had a child of her own and that she and her family live far away, in Pennsylvania.
Good for them; you can kind of see why they'd want to.
Labels: real life
Friday, October 10, 2008
Why My Kids Love Me, or Possibly Hate Me -- Verbatim conversation as my son was getting out of the car for school this morning:
Me: I want you to pay attention in detention.
Aaron: DAD. There's nothing to "pay attention" to. It's detention.
Me: Well, I hope there isn't a lot of tension. In detention.
Me: You know, what comes after detention is suspension.
Me: Of this, no more will I mention.
Aaron: [Gets out of car and walks toward school]
Me: Have a good day...you and your...henchmen.
Labels: real life
Tuesday, October 07, 2008
Are You Rich? -- The most I've ever made was just shy of $40,000 a year, and while I didn't think I was rich, I was able to afford a 100-mile daily round-trip commute, two monthly car payments, my half of the rent, all of the grocery money for a family of four, lunch at a restaurant every day, and hundreds of dollars in comics every month...sometimes every week. The day I bought the life-sized Alex Ross Spider-Man head bust, I think I spent about $400.00 on comics plus the bust, which I still have (and still love, I admit). I recently slipped up and admitted in front of my wife that I bought the Spidey bust, after lying to her and telling her it was a "review copy" back in the day...I was ashamed of spending that much money on something that unnecessary, and I'm glad she knows the truth now, anyway.
I bring this up because of Roger Ebert's thoughts on what makes one rich. I love how much more personal and political Ebert's writing has gotten lately.
I am far from rich these days, and far from making anywhere near $40,000, which makes me sad, because I remember reading in GQ years ago that a successful adult should be making $1,000 for each year he has been alive. In radio that is easy at age 20, nearly impossible at 42 unless you're Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh, or at least very popular and in a big market. Of course, I might be richer if I didn't do things like spend $250.00 on a custom frame job for a Justice League lithograph, but in my defense, A) I was momentarily flush with cash, B) I was out of my mind with dental problems and anxiety and C) Come on, it's Bruce Freaking Timm.
Labels: real life
Thursday, September 11, 2008
The View from Seven Years -- Today marks the seventh anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11th. I remember vividly, as I am sure you do, where I was and what I was doing seven years ago today. And six years ago today, in 2002, when I wrote the first version of this essay.
At that time I said "my righteous rage at the opportunists that have used September 11th to further their own hidden agenda will do no good. You either realize how vile the people running this country are, or you do not. It's not as if any real effort to disguise their base thuggery is even being attempted. As long as you wrap yourself in the flag, and nude statues in blankets, it seems anything goes, and most of it is being done quite obviously, with a snide contempt for a depressingly compliant populace."
Not much has changed. George W. Bush and his illegal government -- illegally placed into office in late 2000 and raping democracy ever since -- have continued their monstrous misdeeds, unindicted and unpunished. Maybe that will change. I certainly hope so, at this late date. The clock is ticking on the chance to officially censure Bush and Cheney with impeachment; we could do it for Clinton's uncontrolled libido, but not Bush and Cheney's uncontrolled war of lies? A million lives or more have been lost since the illegal and unnecessary Iraq war was launched. Lost not only to combat, but to the poverty and disease and other "unexpected consequences" of the illegal invasion of Iraq. Not that Saddam Hussein was a bad man; he was. But the murder of one monster by another is hardly cause for celebration, particularly when my nation's fate remains in the sweaty, miserable hands of the surviving monster and the smirking, complicit corporate media that have made it all possible, and made a fortune doing so.
I love the U.S. and I realize that it used to be one of the best, most free nations on Earth. Used to be. Therefore I am deeply ashamed that its citizens have continued to tolerate a blatantly illegitimate, democracy-despising and greed-driven junta that has used the awful events of September 11th, 2001 as justification for suspending the civil rights of U.S. citizens, murdering foreigners and lining the pockets of their political and industrial allies. Int he past year it's also become apparent that Bush and his cronies in industry, finance and government have dismantled the economy of the nation and placed us all at the very brink of an economic disaster unlike any the world has ever seen. Untold poverty and misery are breathing down our necks now, with cute names like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The US will keep handing a free pass to these giant cash vampires until there's nothing at all left for the vast, devastated lower and middle class.
If I have one hope left, after over a half-decade of the televised rape of my nation, it is that I live long enough to see the thugs, monsters and bastards that have fucked up my country -- from Bush on down to his sniveling partners in the mass media -- that I live long enough to see them all indicated and brought to justice for their crimes against democracy, decency and humanity. If there's one thing that the 21st Century is crying out for, it is a mammoth market correction in the political arena that ends in Nuremberg-style trials televised across the globe and enforced by an international body empowered to enforce U.S. and international law on this most lawless of regimes. Sadly, here in the year 2008, there doesn't seem to be enough ethics or will left across the planet to ever make it happen in time.
I continue to hope that people will take the time to learn the truth of our world post-September 11th and recognize what Bush and his gang of thugs have been up to ever since. The people who are running the U.S. continue to use ignorance and fear to put forth their own obscene agenda, but as the rats desert the sinking ship and a precious few lawmakers investigate the possibilities of impeachment -- more and more, Dennis Kucinich seems like the Very Last American Hero -- and impeachment being the very minimum acceptable possible response to the past seven years --
I have a fading hope that things will turn around.
But as it stands, seven years on, the evil at home is still strong, and far more damaging than any foreign enemy. The Republican National Convention, a meeting of The Party That Wrecked America, was protected by government-funded, jackbooted stormtroopers that looked and acted as scary as anything in you'd find in fiction. The photos accompanying this article literally make me sick to my stomach. How is it that these officers can justify their actions? How can they go home at night and not throw up from disgust at their complicity and compliance? Is this all we've come to, after over two centuries of struggle for democracy?
I am not unpatriotic. On this of all days, when we remember the nearly 3,000 people who died on 9/11/01, and the many more hundreds of thousands who have died overseas with the 9/11 murders as obscene, deceitful justification, the best way we can celebrate their memory and respect their sacrifice is to remove the power from those who have committed far worse atrocities against humanity and against our democracy every single day since that awful Tuesday morning, September 11th, 2001.
Seven years on, it still, unbelievably, appears that our national will is too weak to do what should and obviously must be done. If Bush and Cheney, and Rove and Rice, and all their allies and co-conspirators are allowed to finish out their illegitimate terms of office and retire to lives of wealth and leisure without punishment, without consequence, and without justice, that will be an obscenity and a crime many times worse than the obscenities and crimes we all watched seven years ago today.
Seven years on, I am angry at our national shame and disgrace at allowing the last seven years to happen without any real opposition or alternative. My nation, which once led the world and at least pretended to aspire to freedom and democracy, is more lost and far from its ideals than it has ever been in its entire history. Barack Obama and Joe Biden strike me as empty, vapid choices offered up in a cynical continuation of the same, gamed system we've been under for years. And yet, they are the only hope we seem to have at all. It's sickening how far we've fallen, how little most people seem to be aware of that fact, and how little time there now remains in which someone, somewhere might somehow begin to restore justice, freedom and democracy to a nation that seems interested in none of those things.
Friday, August 15, 2008
The Dark Side of the San Diego Comicon -- Beaucoup Kevin shines a light on some pretty loathsome sexual abuse incidents at Comicon International at San Diego. I can't say this is a surprise, but the seeming widespread institutionalization of it is. I'd say the convention organizers have a responsibility to respond to these claims and police future conventions a lot more closely than they obviously did this year.
Saturday, August 09, 2008
New York State Bans Broadcast Non-Compete Clauses -- Forgive me a little moment of Norma Rae, but WOO-HOO!
Labels: real life
Thursday, July 17, 2008
Dental Damn -- Have I mentioned how much I hate going to the dentist? Or even thinking about going to the dentist? Or even thinking about teeth?
It's a deep-seated fear and loathing, no doubt about it.
I went to the dentist today. And ended up with two appointments to go back, not to the dentist, but to an oral surgeon, in the weeks ahead, to fix two ongoing problems I've been trying very hard not to think about. But I got to the point that that wasn't possible anymore. Nuff said.
So, that's why I got nothing of substance written today.
I hate going to the dentist. A lot.
Labels: real life
Thursday, July 10, 2008
Next-Door Neighbours -- NY Magazine has posted a new strip by Harvey Pekar and Rick Veitch about Harvey's next-door neighbours.
It's a great strip and worth clicking over to read.
Got me to thinking about our next-door neighbours. When my family moved into our current house, nearly four years ago, we never got to know our next-door neighbours, an older man and woman. All I can really tell you about them is that the man would mow the lawn seemingly every other day in the summer. It seemed crazy to me that anyone would spend that much time mowing their lawn, but I figured that maybe he was retired and lawn mowing was a way to keep himself occupied.
A few weeks ago, my wife noticed a moving truck in their driveway. Her theory is that one or both of them has been moved to a nursing home. In any event, our lawn was mowed this past weekend, and for the first time since we've lived there, our lawn looks nicer than the one next door. In fact, the lawn next door is becoming overrun with weeds, and I wonder with a mix of sadness and amusement how aggravated our former neighbours would be if they could see how high the grass and weeds are getting.
More sadness, really -- that guy clearly loved to keep his lawn looking nice, and now it looks like hell, and I bet it would really bum him out if he knew.
Labels: real life
Saturday, July 05, 2008
Happy Birthday, Christopher Butcher -- One of the comics internet's most valuable commentators celebrates his birthday. Christopher Butcher maintains one of my few must-read comics blogs, comics212.net and was also the inspiration for one of the funniest elements of the Scott Pilgrim series, Scott's former roommate Wallace Wells.
Christopher is also the manager of the greatest comic book store in North America, The Beguiling, and is one of a handful of comics critics (along with Rob Vollmar and Tom Spurgeon) whose taste in comics I trust implicitly. I've spent a lot of money over the years on his say-so, and found many excellent comics I might otherwise have never heard of. As an advocate for quality and innovation in comics, Christopher Butcher is unequaled.
I've often said the goal of Comic Book Galaxy is to help push comics forward, and Butcher's managed to do this on multiple fronts; in his comics criticism, in his advocacy and work at The Beguiling, and in the occasional, groundbreaking thinkpieces he posts. He often says things many of us know are true, but figures out a way to express them months or years before anyone else can get their shit together. He sees the future of comics like few others, and it's a future I fully endorse and hope for mightily.
And a few years ago, on my most recent trip to Canada, he broke bread with me and Jason Marcy, taking us to a very cool Toronto restaurant where we got to have dinner in a former bank vault and eat some of the best garlic bread I've ever had in my life.
Chris and I haven't always agreed on everything about comics, maybe because we're both kind of grumpy bastards. But there's no one whose writing about the artform and industry of comics I admire more.
Happy Birthday, Christopher, and many, many happy returns of the day.
Labels: real life
Saturday, June 28, 2008
Me of Little Faith -- Comedian and actor Lewis Black's new book is not the in-your-face yockfest I was expecting. It's funny and profane in places, to be sure, and written in the unique voice I've come to expect from his always-welcome appearances on The Daily Show, but Me of Little Faith is about religion and spirituality, informed by a number of Black's own true-life experiences and containing more nuance and room for cosmic possibilities than one might expect.
Religion can be a sensitive subject -- in Comic Book Galaxy's earliest days, my arrogance and refusal to acknowledge that fact cost the site one of the best writers it ever (briefly) had, Johanna Draper Carlson. Maybe it was because of that incident that I learned to be more tolerant and a little less knee-jerky on the subject. But the fact is, I am an atheist, despite years of religious instruction at Southern Baptist schools in Florida. Or yes, perhaps because of that schooling. But that's not the whole story when it comes to me and the possibility that there's more to the cosmos than we are able to see with our immediate five senses, as I tried to explain in an essay back in 2000.
I've never linked to that piece before, and I don't really love the way it's written, but I swear every word in it is as true as I could explain at that time. And what made me think of that time, and the weird shit that seemed to be happening to me on a regular basis back then, are the extraordinary experiences Lewis Black recounts in some of the chapters of Me of Little Faith. As the book takes you on a tour of major moments of Blacks life (both as a child and as an adult), he occasionally drops a bomb on the reader about seeing what seemed to be a genuine halo around the head of a religious commune leader, or the fact that one of his best friends has what seem to be genuine psychic abilities and often calls to advise him or let him know about an important event about to happen in his life.
And skeptic I am, my initial impulse is to think Black is having some fun with his readers, or more cynically, just fuckin' with us. But the short, funny and revelatory chapters of this book build on each other until Black's comedy, sincerity and life experience come together to create a quite extraordinary explanation of one man's lifelong experience with both the utter baloney of much of organized, rote religion and the utter sublimity of first-person experience with the fact that there is much more to the universe -- and possibly beyond -- than any one of us could ever hope to understand.
And there's no question that the idea of God and the power of spirituality are attractive concepts, no matter what your beliefs. As I often tell my children, "Just because an idea isn't true doesn't mean it doesn't have power." Which has helped me to understand something as gigantic as George W. Bush's cynical manipulation of religious conservatives, or something as odd as my profound reaction to seeing Jack Kirby's astonishing portrait of Moses in the 50th issue of The Jack Kirby Collector. That picture struck others with its presence, as well; Fred Hembeck did an amazing drawing inspired by the very same picture in TJKC at the convention I met him at last weekend. Recognizing religion and mythology are seemingly hardwired into our brains, and that recognition can give enormous comfort or cause monumental disaster depending on how the ideas are delivered and for what reason. It's a complex subject, one Black seems to relish delving deep into.
Me of Little Faith offers up a lot of stories from Lewis Black's life, and the philosophy he's evolved along the way. There are funny stories about staying with hippies on a commune, and genuinely moving sections about his career and the events and people that have shaped it. Lewis Black may be an angry comedian (most of the shit he's angry about pisses me off too), but he's also a thoughtful human being, and he's a very good writer, and if you like his comedy or are interested in an unusual look at spirituality, this is a book that will get you thinking even as it gets you laughing.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Windows XP Gets Reprieve -- Here's some great news for Windows users (like me): Microsoft will now support the XP operating system through 2014.
I got my most recent home computer, which uses XP, in early 2004. Having heard nothing good about Vista at all since its release, and plenty of bad, I've been bending over backwards trying to bring my machine up to date in every way possible, hoping to make my XP last and last and last.
I'm glad to heard Microsoft is recognizing that XP is a superior operating system to Vista, even if they have to couch it in bullshit doubletalk so not to admit that Vista is a failure.
Labels: real life
Wednesday, June 04, 2008
Financial Advice to My Children -- My parents, who were of the World War II generation, were not wise with money. I inherited much of their lack of insight and foresight, but have tried as I grow older to be wiser about how I spend the money I earn. I hope that my children will be even smarter than me. Here's what I think they should do.
1. Don't accept any credit card offers, ever. As I write this in 2008 it seems unlikely that you'll ever receive one, because the credit industry has foolishly extended credit to people it knew it could never pay it back, to the extent that it threatens the economy of the entire United States, if not the world. But if that could change, and you receive offers in the mail of low interest rates or huge rewards for using this or that credit card -- be smart, and throw them away.
2. Save money from every dollar you earn, and live on the rest. If your paycheck is 300 dollars, save 30 for the future in a secure place (at the moment, in 2008, banks don't seem terribly secure to me, but do some research and use your best judgment). Live on the remaining 270 dollars, which means pay the bills you must pay (groceries, rent, phone and other utilities if they still exist), and try to save whatever else is left after that.
3. Spend as little on entertainment as you can. Get books, movies and CDs from the library and use the internet (if it still exists) for other entertainment, communication and research.
4. Don't eat out more than once a month. It will be tempting to save time by spending more money on restaurants and fast food, but that is money you will never see again and could use for far better things. As I write this, you could buy enough groceries to last you a week for the same price as a night out for two at even a decent, never mind fancy, restaurant. Save such expenses for truly special occasions like birthdays, anniversaries and other celebrations. Learn to cook, it's not as difficult as you might think, and there are few pleasures in life as rewarding as sharing a meal you created with your own hands with people you care about. Try to grow your own food if you can, and eat whole foods largely based on fruits and vegetables. It's cheaper and far better for you than the meat and fat-based "diet" that corporations convinced everyone were "tasty" and "convenient." They were neither.
5. Use mass transit, walk or bike everywhere. The world sent itself to hell largely because of the selfish overuse of the combustion engine. We'd have had oil enough to last for centuries longer if the automobile had been outlawed or better regulated, and the use of buses, trains and streetcars was mandated by law. I expect by the time you are adults driving a car for a trip to the grocery store or a day trip to a city 50 or 100 miles away will be a dimly-remembered dream, but if the average citizen still has access to gas-powered transport, save it for emergencies and learn to walk, bike or take the bus everywhere you go. If you must use a car, try never to use it for single tasks or by yourself -- carpool and do your errands in batches to save on fuel expenses. All this will save you money and help the planet recover from the damage mankind did to it in the 20th and early 21st centuries.
6. Do something you love. You might not get rich doing it, but in the long run, if you truly enjoy your job you will excel at it and hopefully will be rewarded for it. In my professional life I have been in radio since I was a teenager, and I've always enjoyed being on the radio, even if at times I haven't enjoyed being "in radio" per se. I haven't done it for over two decades because of the huge financial rewards (well, except for that brief stint in Public Radio), but because it's something I love and seem to be somewhat good at. And even my most time-consuming hobby, blogging and other writing, mostly about comics, has been done because it's something that I greatly enjoy and that is very important to me. I've been very lucky to pick up some extra cash doing that from time to time, and if you can manage to do that, earn money from doing something you love so much you would have done it without financial reward anyway, well, it's a lot like finding free money.
7. Do spend some money on yourself. Most of my disposable income -- money I can afford to spend any way I want -- has been spent over the years on comics and graphic novels. Now, a majority of that money was probably wasted, because I wasn't paying attention to what books I truly found rewarding versus what books I could just be distracted by for a few minutes. But you can't take it with you, as they say, and you will need to spend some money on something to make you happy from time to time in order not to go insane. Just try to be conscious of how you spend that money, and aim to spend it on things you'll enjoy time and again in the future. Whether it's a much-loved video game, or a book that you can lose yourself in again and again, the more times you can use and enjoy something you spend your money on, the better an investment it is. My generation and the one just before mine wasted huge amounts of money, time and energy on temporary, empty distractions, and again, this is largely how the world found itself in the dire straits it currently faces. Be good to yourself, but be aware of what things cost and whether they are truly worth it to you. Your values will ultimately have to be created and monitored by you, and if you're lucky, anyone you choose to share your life with. Know what is important to you, and never forget to live the way you feel is important, and right, and whenever you can, teach others to do the same.
The ADD Blog summer sale continues! Help pay for my wife's car repairs and our family's summer plans, and pick up some amazingly low-priced comics and graphic novels, with FREE SHIPPING. Click here now!
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
David Brooks on Hillary's Fall -- Here's a good piece on why Hillary's days are numbered no matter how you slice it, and why she should get out of the way now to ensure that the right thing happens on Election Day, 2008. Every day she stays in the race against Obama at this point endangers us all and puts us at risk of another four years of the kind of illegal thuggery that has defined the past eight years of American politics under the obscene, lawless Bush "administration."
If you had told me a decade ago that I would be praying for Hillary to fail even as Rush Limbaugh urges his listeners to vote for her, man, I'd have had you institutionalized. But that's just how upside-down and inside-out current political reality is. Hillary -- a woman who once championed universal health care for all and is now in the pocket of the idea's most vicious opponents -- is Al Gore and John Kerry all over again, weak in will but resolute in her refusal to get out of the way of better candidates because it's her "turn." And the last vestiges of hope I have for this destroyed American political system lies solely in the hands of Barack Obama.
Not that President Obama is facing any glorious future either, as these pieces at Market Watch, CNN and Jim Kunstler's blog indicate.
Labels: real life
Monday, March 24, 2008
Bending the Comics -- Reading Occasional Superheroine's nightmarish comic shop story (which includes a nice plug for my piece in the next Comics Journal; thanks, Val!), reminded me of one of my real horrors from buying comics in my teens.
My family lived in Florida in the 1970s, and in 1980, when I was about 14, we moved back to upstate New York from whence we came and where we belonged. Now, I had discovered all sorts of wonderful things between, say, 1978 and 1980: The Bud Plant Catalog, Cerebus, Star*Reach, The Comics Journal, hell, the very existence of comic book stores probably hit in there somewhere, in that formative 12-to-14 year old time in my life.
And while there were no "good comic shops" (as I like to call them) where we lived (St. Augustine, Florida -- this may have changed since 1980, I've never been back and would not know), there was one used coin shop that both bought and sold comics and had maybe 5 or 10 longboxes full of back issues. This was the first store ever where I experienced bringing in my unwanted extras and stuff I no longer cared for and walking out flush with cash.
In my memory, that store paid full guide for back issues, but knowing what I know now, that seems sort of impossible. Maybe they paid some crazy figure like 80 percent of guide and kept a low profit margin; after all, comics were just a sidelight in this shop. But at any rate, I probably sold many hundreds if not thousands of my accumulated comics to that store in a two-year or so time period -- all my Bill Mantlo/Sal Buscema Incredible Hulks certainly ended up there: Incredible Hulk by Mantlo and Buscema was one of those comics that seemed awesome at 10 and incredibly lame by 12, you know?
But between that shop and the great number of 7/11s and Jiffy Marts that were in our area (one within walking distance of our home in St. Augustine Shores, a middle-class housing development built on swampland on the outskirts of town -- that one was a jiffy Mart that became a 7/11), I never wanted for comics. They were always available, either new in the convenience stores or used at that coin shop. In fact, not a weekend went by, probably from the age of 8 or 9 right up until we moved when I was 14 that I would not take a buck or three and walk down to the Jiffy Mart (it was Jiffy Mart most of the time we lived there, in my memory) and get some comics, a Slush Puppy (later a Slurpie once it became 7/11), and walk home with my bounty, set for the weekend of reading. And in the early part of those years, when comics were 20 cents? Two bucks bought a lot of comics. Toward the end I think they were closer to 35 or 40 cents, so, then, not so much. But I digress...my memory is wandering all over the place looking back.
So, living in Florida: Plenty of comics to be had. Flash ahead to 1980, back in upstate New York (where my comics addiction had begun, at the age of 6, recovering from having my tonsils out): After she had the good sense to leave her husband, my mom moved us (me, my brother and her) to the very small town (literally one red light in those days; it might be three, now) of Greenwich, in Washington County. And like in St. Augustine, we lived not "in town," but rather on the outskirts. And rural Washington County is pretty damn rural. Not Deliverance rural, where we were, but closer to that than to any sort of Gilmore Girls small-town idyll.
Greenwich had no comic shops. Unicorn Comics in Saratoga Springs, probably the second most significant comics shop of my teenage years after FantaCo in Albany (40 miles south and reserved for special trips, maybe once a month), would not open for months, so as we settled in Greenwich, I was parched for comics with nothing but desert all around.
Downtown in Greenwich one day with mom and my younger brother, we went into Hughes Newsroom. Ah-ha! There on the bottom tier of a two-tiered magazine rack were the comics. Well, you knew they had to be here somewhere, right? 1980 was still in the beginning years of the direct market, and comics were living out their dying breaths in the mainstream magazine distribution chain, so they generally could be found in most towns, but you had to look.
I grabbed as many as I could afford (read: talk my mom into buying for me) and went up to the counter. And here is the meat of this tale, which laid buried in my mind until Val brought it back for me in her post (linked above):
The old man, Hughes himself, took the stack of maybe half-a-dozen comics. He put them on the counter. He put the palm of one hand on the bottom half of the cover of the top book on the stack, and then, one by one, he bent the covers back to see the prices and ring them up on the cash register.
Again: He put the palm of one hand on the bottom half of the cover of the top book on the stack, and then, one by one, he bent the covers back to see the prices and ring them up on the cash register.
In my head, a voice screamed: OH MY GOD. HE IS KILLING MY COMICS. STOP KILLING MY COMICS!
In the store, a young teenage boy smiled meekly as the old man, Hughes himself, handed me a bag with my now-ruined comics and no doubt told me to "have a nice day." A day he had just destroyed by KILLING MY COMICS.
It was no different than bringing a hamster to the cash register of a pet shop, having the clerk break its neck, take your money and hand you the dead hamster in a paper bag. In fact, this is exactly what it felt like.
And I'd like to tell you that I either spoke up next time, or never shopped there again, but as I say, other than once or twice a month trips to FantaCo (hi, Roger! Wish I'd said it then!), I had no comics and I was hooked on comics. You may be able to relate, but from the age of 6 until, well, now, my whole life in any retail environment is basically where are the comics? Are there comics here? No? Anywhere nearby? Have you any comics? Come on, there must be some comics here someplace! And in those days, that was a successful strategy more often than not. Every garage sale, thrift shop, drug store and supermarket had the comics; you just had to look. And look I did.
But no, it was many weeks -- maybe months -- before I screwed up the courage to take my stack to the counter at Hughes Newsroom and meekly say to to the old man, Hughes himself, "Could you please not bend them?"
You could have heard a pin drop, as they say.
In my memory, he was smoking a cigar. That may be my brain playing tricks on me, but intimidating and big is how I remember this old man, and I swear to God I think he was smoking a cigar. A short, stubby one. Which he would have had to take out to ask me, "What?"
And there it was, in my first moment of comics consumer activism (that's right, blame old man Hughes), I repeated my plea that he please not break my hamster's neck. I mean, please don't bend my comics.
Boy howdy, did he ever look at me like I was out of my fucking mind. I guaran-goddamn-tee you that every comic book he ever sold, from probably the 1940s when that store probably opened up until the chubby teenager spoke up in spring or summer of 1980, every comic book that old man ever sold had its spine broken by his checkout method. Palm on lower half of cover of top comic: Check. Comics bent back one by one to verify prices: Check. Comics ruined: Check.
And thinking about it, back then, every goddamned comic cost the same! Always! Unless you were buying some outsized Warren magazine or Heavy Metal, they were all the same price! All he had to do was count them. That old son of a bitch!
It was some tense moments, there, in Hughes Newsroom there in early 1980. But after I explained, no doubt with many stutters and stammers and a good deal of flop sweat, that he was destroying any resale value the comics might have had (and by then, as noted, I had a good deal of experience reselling my old comics), he came around. Never again did old man Hughes destroy my comics when I checked out there, which I did at least twice a week. See, his distributor dropped off the new comics twice weekly, Tuesdays and Thursdays, I think it was, so I was in there twice a week. And from then on, there were no more broken spines on my comics from Hughes Newsroom.
At least, not for me. I wonder now if he extended the same courtesy to anyone else who bought comics there. If anyone else even did.
It was some months later that my mom found an article in The Saratogian newspaper about Unicorn Comics opening up, and once that happened I don't remember ever going back to Hughes Newsroom again. I thereafter had my first real pull list at a real comic book store, and later on even a part-time job "working the register," which was an honest-to-God cigar box. But that's another story altogether.
Chris Allen's Forgotten Foods -- Reading my post and then his is pretty much as close as most of you will ever get to listening in on one of our late-night, long-distance phone calls.
Labels: real life
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
More on Steve Gerber -- Three pieces worth reading in the wake of Steve Gerber's death earlier this week. Tony Isabella provides a first-person remembrance of working with Steve Gerber, and the folks at The Comics Journal have posted their landmark Gerber interview from 1978. You can also download a PDF of an essay by former Journal columnist Dale Luciano on Gerber's Howard the Duck.
Labels: real life
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Atheists and Christians Agree on Nearly Everything -- Here's lists of gods athiests don't believe in and gods Christians don't believe in. Almost identical! I would have included Glycon the Snake-God on at least one of those lists, though.
And as I always remind my kids, just because a god isn't real doesn't mean the idea of its existence can't hold great power over large groups of people.
Labels: real life
Steve Gerber -- I check my email almost first thing every morning, and this morning the first thing I read was an email from Alex Ness telling me writer Steve Gerber had died. Alex wanted to know if I had any thoughts about Mr. Gerber, and I do, but I wish they were deeper and better-informed.
My earliest memories of Steve Gerber's work were in the 1970s, reading his Defenders and Howard the Duck runs. For me, they anticipated my later experiences with some of Alan Moore's writing, in that Gerber's were obviously good comics being written by a very smart guy, but I was a little too young and far too unformed as a thinking human being to be able to fully process their wonders.
Gerber was a genuine hero of creator's rights, being one of the first to stand up and call bullshit on the egregious work-for-hire system; he wrote Destroyer Duck in an effort to continue his battle, and I bought it, at the time not fully aware of how deep the unfairness of the North American corporate superhero comic book system went; mostly I bought it because it was not published by Marvel or DC, and at the time I was just beginning to realize the very best comics were almost always going to come from other publishers, so in my way, again a little too young to fully understand the implications of the book, I supported what Gerber and friends were trying to do. And there's no question whatever progress has been made in recognizing the rights of comic book creators came in large part because of Steve Gerber and his enormous will to fight.
I mentioned that like Alan Moore's work, I didn't always "get" Gerber; unlike with Moore, I didn't really keep trying. Eventually the nuance and wonder found in most of Alan Moore's writing clicked with me, as I grew older and more patient and appreciative of nuance and skill. But when asked to talk about Gerber, beyond Defenders and Ducks Howard and Destroyer, it's hard for me to recall what else Gerber did. I'm embarrassed under the circumstances to admit I fairly hated the first issue of Gerber's Hard Time but given the acclaim the book later got and the shallowness of my review, it may very well be another case of Gerber being too smart for me, and me just not being ready.
I guess I recognized this deficiency; when the Howard the Duck Omnibus was announced, I reflected on how I would dearly love to go back and re-read those stories with an additional three decades of life experience to inform my reading experience. But I decided not to buy it on the grounds that the Omnibus volumes are extremely expensive and thus something not already within my personal canon of great comics is unlikely to be bought, at the risk of hating it and having wasted enough money to buy a nearly week's groceries. After all, I bought the 75-dollar edition of Stray Toasters, and sure as hell didn't get that, either.
If I have a point, I guess it's this: I don't think I'm dumb, and sometimes I get caught thinking of myself as fairly intelligent. But writers like Alan Moore and Steve Gerber always made me feel like there were smarter people than me creating comics, and there's a kind of reassurance in that, like sleeping on the backseat while Mom and Dad take care of the driving and keep you safe. There are no Alan Moores or Steve Gerbers at Marvel and DC anymore, no one whose work makes me feel dumb or inadequate or like I have a bit more growing up to do before I can appreciate the complexity of their thought processes. Instead, I feel like no one's driving the damn car at all.
We need smart people like Steve Gerber writing comics. We need many smart people like Steve Gerber, and instead this morning, we have one less. So, Steve, I didn't always appreciate you as much as I should have, but I knew it was me, not you, and I wish you were still here to make me feel like I still have something to learn about life, and about comics.
Tributes to Steve Gerber can be found at the blogs of Mark Evanier, Roger Green and Tom Spurgeon.
Labels: real life
Friday, December 21, 2007
The Good Sun -- The late writer Tom Nattell had a wonderful essay on the Winter Solstice published in Albany, New York's Metroland a few years back. Late tonight (actually early Saturday morning) at 1:08 AM Eastern Time we welcome the beginning of another year's journey around the sun.
In remembrance of a great writer, and to welcome in the astronomical new year, I want to share this with you.
In the ritual celebrations associated with the winter solstice, the return of the sun is often of paramount concern. The sun is associated with light and life. The tradition of special activities around this time of year to insure the sun’s return appears to go back far into human prehistory. With the dependence of our species on plant and animal life that follow certain cycles with the seasons, it is likely that the mysteries of the solar cycle were appreciated early in the evolution of human consciousness. These festivities and rituals also brought people together, strengthening social bonds that may have been (and for many still are) critical for the individual to mentally and physically survive winter’s onslaught.Read the full essay in the link above, and may this year's Winter Solstice mark the beginning of a new year for you filled with peace, prosperity and happiness.
Labels: real life
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
Me and My CAT Scan -- Well, it's wasn't really just a CAT scan, turns out, but a CAT scan, x-rays and two separate ultrasounds.
The entire experience took less time than I expected, and I have to say, Sicko not withstanding, it was far less humiliating and aggravating than I was expecting. But then again, I have health insurance, thank whatever gods there be.
It was pretty extraordinary how far out of their way everyone, from the woman at the check-in desk to the final ultrasound technician, seemed to go to make sure I was comfortable and understood what was going on. The one time I knew more than they did about what my doctor wanted done, they double-checked the order and quickly apologized for the confusion.
The worst discomfort came from having to drink a lot -- a lot -- of water for the ultrasound test. The woman who performed that test was the only person who didn't seem to enjoy The ADD Experience; when she began the test (which was seemingly identical to the test they do on pregnant women to check the development of the fetus), I joked that "I don't want to know if it's a boy or a girl, I want to be surprised." Yeah, she was not amused. Well, I was trying to get through it all in good humour.
The second-worst discomfort was trying to clean up all the KY Jelly after the test -- that stuff gets everywhere. Any jokes that sprung to mind about that went unspoken, rest assured.
So now I wait to see what the results say when my doctor(s) get them in a few days. Thanks to everyone who's commented or dropped me an email recently for their kind wishes during this time, your kind thoughts and good wishes have really helped me during a period of pretty extreme stress and uncertainty. Hopefully the resolution to my recent problems will be as easy as today's tests ultimately turned out to be.
Labels: real life
Monday, October 22, 2007
Living in the Post-Peak Oil World -- A new study being released today says we're already past the point of peak oil production. That's a sobering thought for this Monday morning.
In a sane world, this would be the top news story today from any responsible media outlet. Too bad there are so few of those. But if you haven't read any of my pieces on the subject, here are two relevant articles:
* The End of the World, an exploration of my awakening to the cold reality of Peak Oil.
* Completely at Ease: An Interview with James Howard Kunstler, in which I discuss the coming crisis with one of the most visionary and outspoken authors on the subject.
Sooner or later the life of virtually every person on Earth will be affected by the result of oil depletion, and it's likely today's study will be looked back at as a landmark moment of realization, albeit one that came far too late for anything to be done about it.
I personally have not owned a car for nearly three years, but I still am heavily dependent on others who do, and once you start looking at the real consequences of a world running out of its primary source of energy, you realize it's pretty damned comprehensive, the impact of this impending Long Emergency, which today takes another step closer to all of us.
Labels: real life
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
The View from Six Years -- Today marks the sixth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11th. I remember vividly, as I am sure you do, where I was and what I was doing six years ago today. And five years ago today, in 2002, when I wrote the first version of this essay.
At that time I said "my righteous rage at the opportunists that have used September 11th to further their own hidden agenda will do no good. You either realize how vile the people running this country are, or you do not. It's not as if any real effort to disguise their base thuggery is even being attempted. As long as you wrap yourself in the flag, and nude statues in blankets, it seems anything goes, and most of it is being done quite obviously, with a snide contempt for a depressingly compliant populace."
Not much has changed. George W. Bush and his illegal government -- illegally placed into office in late 2000 and raping democracy ever since -- have continued their monstrous misdeeds, unindicted and unpunished. Maybe that will change. I certainly hope so, at this late date. Estimates are that a million lives or more have been lost since the illegal and unnecessary Iraq war was launched. Lost not only to combat, but to the poverty and disease and other "unexpected consequences" of the illegal invasion of Iraq. Not that Saddam Hussein was a bad man; he was. But the murder of one monster by another is hardly cause for celebration, particularly when my nation's fate remains in the sweaty, miserable hands of the surviving monster.
I love the U.S. and I realize that it used to be one of the best, most free nations on Earth. Used to be. Therefore I am deeply ashamed that its citizens have continued to tolerate a blatantly illegitimate, democracy-despising and greed-driven junta that has used the awful events of September 11th, 2001 as justification for suspending the civil rights of U.S. citizens, murdering foreigners and lining the pockets of their political and industrial allies.
If I have one hope left, after over a half-decade of the televised rape of my nation, it is that I live long enough to see the thugs, monsters and bastards that have fucked up my country -- from Bush on down to his sniveling partners in the mass media -- that I live long enough to see them indicated and brought to justice for their crimes against democracy, decency and humanity. If there's one thing that the 21st Century is crying out for here in its infancy, it is a mammoth market correction in the political arena that ends in Nuremberg-style trials televised across the globe and enforced by an international body empowered to enforce U.S. and international law on this most lawless of regimes.
I continue to hope that people will take the time to learn the truth of our world post-September 11th and recognize what Bush and his gang of thugs have been up to ever since. The people who are running the U.S. continue to try to use ignorance and fear to put forth their own obscene agenda, but as the rats desert the sinking ship and a precious few lawmakers investigate the possibilities of impeachment -- the very minimum acceptable possible response to the past six years, for my money -- still, I have hope that things will turn around.
But as it stands, six years on, the evil at home is still strong, and far more damaging than any foreign enemy. If it makes me unpatriotic or unsympathetic or uncaring to point it out on this of all days, there it is. On this of all days, when we remember the nearly 3,000 people who died on 9/11/01, the best way we can celebrate their memory and respect their sacrifice is to work to remove the power from those who have committed far worse atrocities against humanity and against our democracy every single day since that awful Tuesday morning, September 11th, 2001.
Six years on, I still fear that our national will is too weak to do what obviously must be done. If Bush and Cheney are allowed to finish out their illegitimate terms of office and retire to lives of wealth and leisure without punishment, without consequence, and without justice, that will be an obscenity and a crime many times worse than the obscenities and crimes we all watched six years ago today.
Six years on, I am angrier than ever, and my nation, which wants to believe it leads the world, is more lost and far from its ideals than it has ever been in its entire history. It's sickening, how far we've fallen, and how little hope there remains of ever truly setting things right.
Labels: real life
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
Roger on FantaCo's FF Chronicles -- Roger Green's been promising some FantaCo related articles for a while, and today he delivers a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of The Fantastic Four Chronicles. Unsurprisingly, Jim Shooter turns up as the turd in the punchbowl.
Roger notes that today is the anniversary of the birth of both FantaCo and Jack Kirby, both sadly gone and much-missed by me. Both loom as giants in my memories and are thought of on a daily basis; I hope you'll take a look at Roger's essay, as well as Tom Spurgeon's wondrous visual tribute to Jack Kirby.
Coincidentally, today is also my wife Lora's birthday. I'd wish her a happy birthday here, but she doesn't read my blog, so instead I'll tell her when she wakes up, and again when the kids and I take her out for her birthday dinner tonight.
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
Idiot America -- Writing for Esquire, Charles Pierce deconstructs how the United States has fallen so very far.
Monday, August 06, 2007
Completely at Ease: An Interview with James Howard Kunstler
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…
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?
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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