Sunday, December 28, 2014

The best books syllabus

More and more, it's becoming a struggle to find a book worth reading. The classics no longer seem relevant to my life. Contemporary novels (half of which seem to be set among the cultural elite in NYC) don't do much for me either. Travel books all seem so wimpy and unambitious. Lately, I've had to resort to nonfiction science writing and biographies. For every four books I start, three are given up by page 30. 

I'd love it if someone, whose tastes are similar to my own, would give me a syllabus of decent books to read to save me the trouble of sampling and discarding so many. With that in mind, I've decided to list my favorite books for those of you who may also be struggling to find a decent book. 

Many books that I admire and respect, but that didn't agree with me (Joyce's Ulysses for instance), didn't make this list. These are simply my favorites. Still, many of my favorites didn't make this list because I felt that they wouldn't appeal to most readers, or maybe I fell in love with them at an impressionable age. And there are many books that I liked that I've regrettably culled; these are books that I loved. I chose the following because they were enriching, entertaining, or beautifully written (or all of the above), and would appeal to the general lover of books. They aren't listed in any particular order, except by genre and alphabetical order by author. 

Fiction 1700 - 1899

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Middlemarch by George Eliot
The Mill on the Floss by George Elliot
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Fiction 1900 - Present

Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner
The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail by Robert Edwin Lee and Jerome Lawrence
Call of the Wild by Jack London
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
1984 by George Orwell
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Stoner by John Williams 

Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
Poldark series by Winston Graham
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

Non-Fiction - Travel/Nature

Desert Solitaire by Ed Abbey
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl
On Nature: Selected Essays by Edward Hoagland
A Walk across America by Peter Jenkins
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez
West with the Night by Beryl Markham
Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller
Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby
Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Iron and Silk by Mark Salzman
Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner

501 Minutes to Christ by Poe Ballantine

Non-Fiction - Philosophy

Consumed by Benjamin Barber

Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry
The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers
Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
A Tolerable Anarchy by Jedediah Purdy
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Abstract Wild by Jack Turner
Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen

But What If We're Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman
Tribe by Sebastian Junger

Non-Fiction - Memoir/Autobiography/Essays

Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
The Discomfort Zone by Jonathan Franzen
The Stars, the Snow, the Fire by John Haines
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
Denial by Jonathan Rauch
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
Naked by David Sedaris

Essays from the Nick of Time by Mark Slouka

Non-Fiction - History

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis
Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz
The Endurance by Alfred Lansing
Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Nash
In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Non-Fiction - Biography 

Che by Jon Lee Anderson
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
The Days of Henry Thoreau by Walter Harding
Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer
Henry Thoreau: Life of the Mind by Robert Richardson
Saint Joan of Arc by Vita Sackville-West
Grant by Ron Chernow

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

Non-Fiction - Special Interest

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Suburban Nation by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk
What We Know about Climate Change by Kerry Emanuel
Story by Robert McKee
The Conundrum by David Owen
Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
The Social Conquest of Earth by E.O. Wilson

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The best books I read in 2014

I spent about the first quarter of 2014 researching books on the Great Plains—many of which were great, but few of which would interest the general public, and therefore don’t make this list (with the exception of Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner).

For the rest of 2014, I struggled to find a decent book. It used to be my policy to finish all books that I start, but with millions of books out there, why waste time on a book I clearly don’t like when I could be reading something better? My new policy: If a book doesn’t grab me by the first 30 pages, I move onto something else. I must have skimmed, started, or stopped well over 50 books this year (of many different varieties), and have read in full a great deal more than are present on this list. So the ones that make this list are special. If your tastes happen to align with mine, here are a few recommendations to hopefully save you a bit of the time it takes to find something worthwhile. 

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Perhaps my favorite book of all time. When I get disillusioned with what passes for style and storytelling nowadays, I reread Freedom to remind me that there are still true novelists out there. Franzen has a beautiful style—rich metaphors on every page, sparkling dialogue, gleaming insights. To me, Franzen has the elegance of the best 19th Century British writers (Eliot, Hardy, Austen), yet I favor Franzen because, unlike his predecessors, his concerns speak to my own as a youngish, 21st-Century male American who's concerned about the state of the world. I think what makes Franzen so readable is that it’s clear that he’s had fun writing this book. I imagine him, at his keyboard, when he’s thought of something funny to write, tilting his head back and letting out a hearty chuckle.

“A navigational beacon in Katz’s black Levi’s, a long-dormant transmitter buried by a more advanced civilization, was sparking back to life. Where he ought to have felt guilty, he instead was getting hard. Oh, the clairvoyance of the dick: it could see the future in a heartbeat, leaving the brain to play catch-up and find the necessary route from occluded present to preordained outcome.” 

A Tolerable Anarchy by Jedediah Purdy

One of my interests is American mythology: how we got to be the way we are; why we believe the things we believe; how we came to define our own particular brand of American “freedom.” Purdy goes back to our nation’s founding and finds compelling insights into, say, why we deny climate change or buy into libertarianism. Purdy is a lovable guide: it strikes the reader that he has no “agenda” except to discover the plain truth of things.

“Americans’ foremost secular creed is the belief that common sense, the heart’s impulse and the mind’s untrained judgment, solves all problems and removes all mysteries. This appealingly democratic idea has the price of honoring our habits and prejudices as self-evident truths, enabling us to hold together our radicalism and our conservatism without fully confronting either.”

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

I’d read this once before, but I picked it up again because I’m writing a book about my own cross-country walk, and desired to re-familiarize myself with successful books on the subject. I read it in two days, and I think I enjoyed it even more than the first time. Bryson is lovable, despite being cranky and sometimes mean, partly because he’s so honest about it and partly because he's quick to make fun of himself whenever he can. The dialogues with his hiking partner, Katz, are superb.

“Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception. The world, you realize, is enormous in a way that only you and a small community of fellow hikers know. Planetary scale is your little secret."

Energy of Slaves by Andrew Nikiforuk

Nikiforuk's research is flabbergasting. He borrows from countless disciplines, taking us on an odyssey through our smoggy 21st Century world. We learn that food, obesity, social relationships, population, and (needless to say) the environment are all very much connected to our dependence on fossil fuels. Immensely readable, full of fascinating studies, philosophical theories, and jaw-dropping statistics. Should be required reading for our species.

"'It may be impossible to conceive a reorganization of society adequate for the removal of some admitted evil without destroying the social organization and civilization which depends on it.' [writes Alfred North Whitehead] 'An allied plea is that there is no known way of removing the evil without the introduction of worse evils of some other type.' … Whitehead’s assessment wasn’t far off the mark. Mechanical slaves, powered first by coal and later by oil, effectively eliminated the need for widespread human slavery and serfdom."

Stoner by John Williams

(Has nothing to do with pot or being stoned.) It’s about a young student’s journey into academe. It’s full of social awkwardness, painful shyness, stupid decisions, and absurd squabbles in academic departments. Stoner is a hero you want to root for, even if he’s far from heroic. I'm not sure if the book has a core message, but if it does, it's this: that society should endeavor to promote rich emotional lives within its citizens and that each and everyone of us ought to strive to “know thyself."

“In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart."

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

Superb book on climate change, climate change denial, and the current state of the environmental movement. See my full review here.

“We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis. We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe—and would benefit the vast majority—are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.”

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer

It’s about a spell that’s cast over a suburban town that makes all the women not want to have sex with their menand what results. It’s lighthearted like a Jon Franzen read, also poking a friendly finger into the gut of liberal suburban America. The plot of the book might sound like a crafty way for Wolitzer to condemn male sexuality and champion female empowerment, but it's actually quite fair to males. Wolitzer might agree: It’s a happier world when we’re all getting laid.

"Sexlessness had awakened some churlishness in him. Was this all it took in order to find a bad side of a man? Was it like depriving him of an essential nutrient?"

Gun, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

I had some trouble reading through Diamond’s Collapse, so I was reluctant to open his magnum opus, but have been nothing but pleasantly surprised. It’s a study of why Europeans dominated the world (in a nutshell: guns, germs, and steel), but at its heart it's about something much bigger: the dawn of civilization.

"Twelve thousand years ago, everybody on earth was a hunter-gatherer; now almost all of us are farmers or else are fed by farmers. The spread of farming from those few sites of origin usually did not occur as a result of the hunter-gatherers' elsewhere adopting farming; hunter-gatherers tend to be conservative.... Instead, farming spread mainly through farmers' outbreeding hunters, developing more potent technology, and then killing the hunters or driving them off of all lands suitable for agriculture.”

Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá

Easily the most revolutionary book I’ve read all year. Has me seriously doubting the wisdom behind conventional marriage and permanent monogamy, which has always seemed to me like a cruel and ultimately unappealing punishment. Sex at Dawn validates those feelings with hard science and keen insights into our sexual evolutionary origins.

"Only by arriving at a more nuanced understanding of the nature of human sexuality will we learn to make smarter decisons about our long-term commitments. But this understanding requires us to face some uncomfortable facts." 

Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner

I’ve read a lot of books on the Great Plains. This is by far the best. It’s an autobiography by Stegner about his youth on the Saskatchewan plains. His descriptions are beautiful and vivid, yet I most respect him for looking at his home and the people with a critical eye.

“Desolate? Forbidding? There was never a country that in its good moments was more beautiful. Even in drouth or dust storm or blizzard it is the reverse of monotonous, once you have submitted to it with all the senses. You don’t get out of the wind, but learn to lean and squint against it. You don’t escape sky and sun, but wear them in your eyeballs and on your back. You become acutely aware of yourself. The world is very large, the sky even larger, and you are very small. But also the world is flat, empty, nearly abstract, and in its flatness you are a challenging upright thing, as sudden as an exclamation mark, as enigmatic as a question mark.”

The Social Conquest of Earth by E.O. Wilson

E.O. Wilson is perhaps the greatest writer-scientist of them all. He's built his career on studying on something as tiny as ants, but he can't help himself for setting his sights on the big picture. 

“Are people innately good, but corruptible by the forces of evil? Or, are they instead innately wicked, and redeemable only by the forces of good? People are both. And so it will forever be unless we change our genes, because the human dilemma was foreordained in the way our species evolved, and therefore an unchangeable part of human nature. Human beings and their social orders are intrinsically imperfectible and fortunately so. In a constantly changing world, we need the flexibility that only imperfection provides.”

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Barnes does a superb job ensuring that a novel does what a good novel must do: to have a sense of mystery and tension on every page. One of my fascinations is with memory, the inadequacies of which are central to the plot. 

"We live in time - it holds us and molds us - but I never felt I understood it very well. And I'm not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time's malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing - until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return."


In 2014, two friends published books. I can’t claim partiality, but they’re as worthy of this list as any other.

Fugue in Ursa Major by David Dalton

A sci-fi apocalypse novel set in the Appalachian Mountains, Fugue is one of the most heretical books I’ve read. David is especially talented with dialogue, specifically the Socratic dialogue between teacher and student. Unbeknownst to the reader, by the end you’ve consumed more than a fair share of history, theology, and physics lessons.

"[Men] have ancient instincts in a crowded world that's much too far from nature. Oh, they can channel their male instincts into the competitiveness of sports, or the cut-throat corporate world, but those things are a poor substitute for the real thing—you know, a horse or even a boat underneath you, the wind in your face, the stars over your head, the thrill of hope, and danger, and promise. That's what men were made for."

The Chain by Ted Genoways

You’ll probably never want to eat Spam again after reading about the ghastly treatment of the animal and the workers who butcher them in slaughterhouses across America. It’s The Jungle for the 21st Century.

"I sat and watched as evidence of our national industry and know-how arrived by the truckload. Our whole history of conquering the West, industrializing agriculture, and turning hog slaughter into a 'custom meat operation' arrived... And, in that moment, an illness like PIN and all the other social ills brought on by Hormel in their quest for increased output seemed an inevitable by-product of an industry that has grown too large and gained too much momentum to ever stop or even slow down."

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Art of Keeping Warm

I wondered: What is the lowest indoor temperature I could comfortably live with on a permanent basis? 

I wondered this because, for the first time in 31 years, I’m living in a home in which I control the thermostat. Because I’ve either been living in a van or someone else’s home, I never had to deal with the responsibility of paying for utilities or the guilt of relying on fossil fuels, which are, in my current situation, natural gas and coal-powered electricity.

Since July, I’ve been living in a vacant home on a friend’s property in Nebraska. The house is quite large (three bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a massive living room), and because it isn’t the most energy-efficient house, keeping the temperature at a toasty 70˚F (21˚C), especially for just one person, is unthinkable. Not only would that cost a ton of money, but I couldn’t stomach the idea of wastefully using fossil fuels when I thought a simple hat and sweater might suffice. 

I’ve often wondered: If we all set our thermostats to our own “comfortable low,” how many West Virginian mountains could we save, how many fewer communities would we frack, how much less greenhouse gas would we emit?

That’s tough to calculate, but we do know that we use a lot of (arguably unneeded) energy. In the U.S. and Great Britain, the average bedroom and living room temperatures are set between 65˚F and 70˚F (18-21˚C). When you think of the size of U.S. homes in particular, the amount of energy it must take to maintain that level of warmth throughout a house is flabbergasting. All in all, residential thermostats, UC Davis study reports, are responsible for an astounding 9 percent of all energy consumption in the U.S.

Winter finally hit a little over a week ago, bringing with it temperatures as low as 6˚F (-14˚C). My house’s minimum temperature had been pre-set to 55˚F (13˚C), so I just let it remain that way for a couple of days, figuring I should acclimate to this manageable temperature before I begin testing cooler temps. 

Before I share the results of my experiment, I should elaborate on what I mean by my “comfortable low” temperature. I would consider this low temperature “comfortable” so long as the temperature does not negatively affect my health or productivity.

I know from experience how temperature can affect productivity. In a North Carolina summer, on a 90˚F (32˚C) and unbearably muggy afternoon, I found that my mind would slow down and all I wanted to do was take a naked nap atop my sheets. It seriously affected productivity, and, before long, I'd be hankering for a cool gust of air conditioning. 

On the other hand, I know from living in a van and my tent that it’s extremely uncomfortable to type or do anything with my hands when it's, say, 10˚F (-12˚C) inside. So what's an acceptable indoor low that won't cause any reduction in productivity? 

When it was 55˚F (13˚C), I put on more warm clothes than I'd usually wear indoors: a tee shirt, sweat shirt, sweat pants, and a light coat. For the most part, I was reasonably comfortable when I was lying in bed under the covers or when I was up and moving: cooking, cleaning, exercising. It was only when I was at my computer typing (and I'm on my computer a lot) when it became uncomfortable, especially when my hands were more than half numb. 

I did the obvious thing and put on more clothes, and in due time I was ready to lower the house's temperature even more. 

The lowest the thermostat would go was 45˚F (7˚C), which I figured was a good low to stop at because I had to ensure that none of the pipes in the house would freeze.  

The first day at 
45˚F (7˚C) was fairly unpleasant. My fingers were frozen and they were moving slower than usual, so much that it was affecting my ability to type. My feet were constantly cold, too. For pretty much twenty-four hours straight, my hands and feet were cold to the touch. 

I decided it was time to go all-in on my winter wear, so I dug through my bags and pulled out and put on two pairs of underwear, a pair of wool socks, and then a set of thermal underwear. 

After that, I put on a pair of sweats, though sometimes I wear a thin pair of pants and a long-sleeve tee beneath my sweats. 

Then I put on my light red coat and then a heavy poofy purple coat. 

Here I am in my house-wear. 

Don't forget your hat!

And your second hat!

Still, when you're living in 45˚F (7˚C) for twenty-four hours a day, for days on end, and you're doing a lot of sitting, the cold will eventually set in, no matter how many articles of clothes you're wearing. 

Again, I was having trouble typing because of my frozen hands (even though the rest of me was comfortable), so I pulled out my -20˚F (-29˚C) rated down sleeping bag, and decided to wear it whenever I was sitting. 

I stuck a thermometer in the sleeping bag and when I pulled it out, it read 85˚F (29˚C). I noticed that neither my feet nor my hands were cold anymore, and I was so warm I had to fling off both of my hats. I've been living like this for over a week, and I've grown comfortable enough with the cold and my adaptations that I don't think I'll feel compelled to put an end to my experiment. 

Picture taken just after I pulled thermometer out of my sleeping bag.
While one person experiencing just ten days of a colder-than-normal house is a pretty small experiment, and one from which I ought not draw strong conclusions, I can't help but believe that, if times got hard, or if a hefty carbon tax was instituted, most Americans (let's not include the old and sick) are more than capable of lowering their thermostat by 20˚F (11˚C) without doing any serious harm to their health and efficiency.

There's no great secret to keeping warm. The more clothes, the better. But I think that there is a subtle art to it. A few things to keep in mind:

1. Our extremities (fingers and toes) get cold not just because of exposure, but because our "core" is stealing that heat (forgive my non-technical terms). The body's number one priority is to keep the core warm, so keep the core extra warm and our extremities will have a better chance of staying warm, too. 

2. There are a lot of factors that contribute to hypothermia, and one of them is food and water consumption. A well-fed and well-hydrated person will fend off the cold much more easily than someone who's not.  

3. As I understand it, we don't get colds because of exposure to cold weather. We get colds because the cold weakens our immune system, making us more susceptible to succumbing to viruses spread by human contact. Luckily my hermit lifestyle severely limits my exposure to unpleasant illnesses. 

While I'm at it, here's a quick tour of my new home:


Living room, which I don't keep heated. Notice walls are carpeted, and there's a couch hanging from the ceiling.

Carpeted doors and walls.

The man who built this house was a senior league racquetball superstar.


Kitchen. There are three thermostats in the house. One that covers the kitchen, which is set at the minimal temp of 50. The living room thermostat is turned off and therefore unheated. My room and bathroom is set for 45. 

Kitchen booth. View of corn field, harvested a few weeks back. 
My room. 

Yellow Pad story board for my book.

Boning up on travel literature and all things Great Plains. 

I live next to a corn field, a soybean field, and a cattle feedlot. 

Here we are herding them from the field to the lot a couple of weeks back. 

Pool in backyard.

My backyard, a harvested soybean field.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Book Recommendation: “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate” by Naomi Klein

Climate change fascinates me like nothing else. It is the defining story of the 21st Century. Glaciers are melting, oceans are rising, the earth is warming, people are scared to death. It’s become a war of sorts — one in which conservatives are pitted against liberals; industry against the environment; science against ideology. With the fate of the world and civilization at stake, it’s the 21st Century’s most important story, even if half the world doesn’t care to listen. 

The book I’ve been working on — Trespassing across America — is in many ways an environmental book, so I try to get my hands on all things climate change. I’m most interested in figuring out how we got here from a cultural evolution perspective (i.e., Christianity, neoliberal capitalism) and how we might get out—in other words, can we somehow — politically, technologically, economically, and philosophically — get out of the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into?

Klein’s This Changes Everything is excellent. While most of us already know that our consumptive and wasteful economic system — capitalism — is to blame for our countless environmental problems and is at the bottom of our unsustainable plundering of natural resources, Klein’s book is an eloquent, forceful, no-pulled-punches reminder:

Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.
The book is best at explaining the fundamental causes behind our climate change crisis. If there’s anything to criticize — and I’m nitpicking — it’s that she takes on too much, filling us in on the rather massive international environmental movement, including everything from divestment, to indigenous rights, to the Keystone XL. This scope and attention to detail may have the effect of pulling the spotlight off her most revolutionary (capitalism vs. climate change) insights.

For someone new to the subject of the modern-day environmental movement, This Changes Everything is a superb summary of pretty much everything going on. For those of us who casually follow the environmental movement, like myself, the book at times can come across as a bit ponderous.

Despite acknowledging the many forces working against the environmental movement (increased worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, the waning of media coverage, and widespread climate change denial), Klein is unapologetically optimistic, citing the massive international movement that has for years been challenging our prevailing economic system and energy policies. Klein sees, or wants to believe, that progress is happening.

Indeed, we are seeing progress. Since when do we oppose pipelines because what goes through them affects our climate? Since when do 35,000 people march for the climate in Washington D.C.? Since when is practically the whole world at least aware of the concept of climate change? You couldn't say these things in the 1990s. These are developments of the 2010s.

But are they enough? Based on the results of the 2014 elections, we can say, with certainty, “No, definitely not.”

Republican Mitch McConnell, a climate denier, is now the Senate Majority Leader. Republican Jim Inhofe, the country's most loopy tin-foil-hatted climate denier, now holds the chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Incoming Republican Senator Joni Ernst says, “Yes, we do see climates change, but I have not seen proven proof that it is entirely man-made." (Watch the Bill Maher video below in which he brilliantly illustrates what's happened in Congress.)

Despite the hopeful tone, reading This Changes Everything in the wake of the 2014 elections only left me with a feeling of exasperation. The world is coming to an end, and we're putting the party most responsible back into office?! What the hell...

It's one of those times you can't help but wonder, "So in what direction are we heading: backward or forward?"


Klein on how capitalism and a healthy planet cannot coexist: 

“We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis. We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe—and would benefit the vast majority—are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.”

“And that is what is behind the abrupt rise in climate change denial among hardcore conservatives: they have come to understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time—whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market… Climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary conservatism rests. A belief system that vilifies collective action and declares war on all corporate regulations and all things public simply cannot be reconciled with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces that are largely responsible for creating and deepening the crisis… As Robert Manne, a professor of politics at La Trobe University in Melbourne, puts it, climate science is for many conservatives ‘an affront to their deepest and most cherished basic faith: the capacity and indeed the right of ‘mankind’ to subdue the Earth and all its fruits and to establish a ‘mastery’ over Nature.’”

On climate change denial: 

“Yale law professor Dan Kahan, the lead author on this study, attributes the tight correlation between ‘worldview’ and acceptance of climate science to ‘cultural cognition,’ the process by which all of us — regardless of political leanings — filter new information in ways that will protect our ‘preferred vision of the good society.’ If new information seems to confirm that vision, we welcome it and integrate it easily. If it poses a threat to our belief system, then our brain immediately gets to work producing intellectual antibodies designed to repel the unwelcome invasion. As Kahan explained in Nature, ‘People find it disconcerting to believe that behavior that they find noble is nevertheless detrimental to society, and behavior that they find base is beneficial to it. Because accepting such a claim could drive a wedge between them and their peers, they have a strong emotional predisposition to reject it.’ In other words, it is always easier to deny reality than to allow our worldview to be shattered.’”

“One of the most interesting findings of the many recent studies on climate perceptions is the clear connection between a refusal to accept the science of climate change and social and economic privilege. Overwhelmingly, climate change deniers are not only conservative but also white and male, a group with higher than average incomes. And they are more likely than other adults to be highly confident in their views, no matter how demonstrably false… McCright and Dunlap offer a simple explanation for this discrepancy: ‘Conservative white males have disproportionately occupied positions of power within our economic system. Given the expansive challenge that climate change poses to the industrial capitalist economic system, it should not be surprising that conservative white males’ strong system-justifying attitudes would be triggered to deny climate change.”

On how we’re moving backwards:

“Preliminary data shows that in 2013, global carbon dioxide emissions were 61 percent higher than they were in 1990, when negotiations toward a climate treaty began in earnest.”

“The years leading up to the gathering had seen a precipitous collapse of media coverage of climate change, despite a rise in extreme weather: in 2007, the three major U.S. networks—CBS, NBC, and ABC—ran 147 stories on climate change; in 2011 the networks ran just fourteen stories on the subject.”

“A 2007 Harris poll found that 71 percent of Americans believed that the continued burning of fossil fuels would alter the climate. By 2009 the figure had dropped to 51 percent. In June 2011 the number was down to 44 percent—well under half the population.”

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

On not blogging

There’s nothing more pitiful than a dead blog.

The most pitiful are those that die as soon as they are born. If I had to guess, these fallen infants — with less than two entries — make up over ninety percent of all the blogs out there. The introductory entry is always the same: the blogger is excited, hopeful, and self-effacing, but six years have passed and we’re left wondering if Ashley ever did embark on her South American travels, or if this gleeful entry was merely the regrettable outcome of a fleeting caffeine high. Some of these blogs get covered in dirt without even being named.

Old blogs that are dead are almost as bad. No matter when or why the blogger decided to pull the plug on the blog, the blogger, from our vantage point, is someone who gave up, who became less interesting, and whose life fell into the ranks of the ordinary. We, the living, with our bright futures ahead of us and our blogs that have yet-to-be-written, can’t help but feel superiorly alive.

Still, as someone who starts things more than he finishes them (I gave up on my goal of learning the bagpipes before even squeezing one), I suppose I look back with some pride on this blog, which I kept going — with about an entry a week — for four whole years (or 744 years in blog years).

But around a year and a half ago I more or less stopped writing. I did so, in short, because I no longer felt compelled to write, and I only write now because the compulsion, now so foreign to me, has momentarily become strong enough to break my blogging silence.

I suppose I stopped writing in part because my life had become far less interesting than it had been. I was no longer living in a van or hiking across the country. I was no longer broke and struggling to make my way as a writer. I was back at David’s place in North Carolina, where I resumed living the same sort of existence I’d been living off and on for years. My life didn’t seem new and exciting to me, and, now that I no longer felt as if I was on an interesting journey, I no longer felt that I had material interesting enough for public consumption.

Don’t get me wrong, there was still plenty of interesting stuff happening, but most of it was of a private nature that ought not be shared, even though I knew this personal stuff — the stuff that no one really writes about — would have been supremely entertaining to practically anyone. I speak of romances, quarrels with friends, unflattering observations about myself. But I’ve long known that, when it comes to writing for a public audience, it’s a lot easier to make sweeping statements about cultures and countries than it is about individuals. My need for self-expression, for understanding the world through the act of writing down thoughts, was mostly satisfied, anyway, by writing emails to close friends.

After some post-book fame last summer, and a trip to the British Isles last fall, I went on a brief speaking tour, on which I discovered that I’m a decent but not great speaker, and that speaking probably won’t be an adequate source of income for me, and may not be worth all the stress of standing up in front of a big (and sometimes embarrassingly small) audience. 

Last winter, when I came back to North Carolina, I proceeded to work on my Keystone XL book by not working on my Keystone XL book. I zipped through over one hundred books on the Great Plains, the history of oil, sociobiology, climate change, twenty-first century agriculture, the history of trespassing, and a number of other esoteric subjects, aimlessly wandering through the Wake Forest library book stacks in search of everything and nothing. I wasn’t sure if I was doing hard work or procrastinating the actual writing of my book and living of my life.

Meanwhile, I watched more HBO than was good for me, and dealt with some of the concerns of a thirty-something American: Should I plant cantaloupe this season? Should I upgrade to a Mac? Is that a lump on my testicle? Should I sign up for Obamacare? Should I start a microbrew or am I having a thirty-year life crisis?

Neglecting the blog did feel like I was neglecting an old friend who I really ought to keep in touch with. But I consoled myself with the belief that sometimes it’s best to take a break from writing and books — to let your mind lay fallow — so that it can bloom thoughts more brightly in coming seasons.

I only half-believe that, though. Writing, I know from experience, is just good for the mind and soul, and my day always feels a bit fuller when I’ve forced myself to flesh out some thoughts. That’s because it’s not just that thinking leads to writing, but that writing leads to thinking. In other words, I wouldn’t experience some thoughts — and enjoy the fulfillment of having those thoughts — if I didn’t force myself to work them out on page.

Here’s another reason why this blog has died: I’d rather that people not know how truly ordinary I am. Occasionally I’ll receive an admiring email from a fan of my book and they’ll confuse me for someone of significance. Based on my online persona — which I have much control over — it’s easy to conclude that I am someone who constantly goes on journeys and who lives a wild and exciting and purpose-driven life, and not someone who gets groggy when he doesn’t get his two-hour-long afternoon cat nap and who’s watched Season Four of Game of Thrones twice. Best let them remain inspired by this somewhat-fictional adventurous figure, I'll think.

And lastly, as the years go by, I find that I’m becoming more uncertain about literally everything. Opinions I once held dear to my chest are, with inspection, unsettlingly brought into question. I find that everything is just so complex and ultimately unknowable. And it’s difficult to have a clear opinion on anything the more you learn about it. I remain silent not for a scarcity of thoughts, but for a want of conviction in those thoughts. When researching a subject, one minute I think I understand an issue, and, the next, I feel like I know less about the subject than I did before I started researching it. The only thing I can state with conviction is the degree of my doubt.

It’s why I feel slimy sometimes after sharing an opinion: because, deep-down, I know I really don’t know. The very act of putting words onto page can seem like an act of falsehood.

Think about it. Every word in the English language is a meager and incomplete attempt at describing something ultimately indescribable. Take the word “happiness,” for instance. It describes a feeling of joy, but truthfully what we feel is far more complicated than the simple, three-syllable word we use to describe it. “Happiness,” and every word for that matter, is an imperfect approximation. We can describe the sky as “blue sky,” but that does nothing to describe the literally infinite shades of color, the congregation of different cloud shapes, each changing into something else every second, or the angle of the sun, similarly changing from moment to moment. We could describe the moment we looked up at the sky for years, and never get close to transferring the trillion subtleties of color, touch, smell, and noise onto page. Language may be the best tool we have to communicate, but it always falls short of sharing “the whole picture” with someone else.

Sometimes, when talking with someone, I'll feel an odd sense of guilt for no apparent reason, as if I’m knowingly lying to them or doing something wrong. I won't look them in the eye and it may look like I'm hiding something. I think this is because, unconsciously, I know that everything I say is an approximate truth and thus a falsehood, even if it is my goal to most accurately transfer the truth from my mouth to their ear. So maybe instead of writing half-baked opinions and adding to the heaping piles of Internet drivel, it’s better to write nothing at all.

In the end, that’s probably not true. Even though the act of writing and of thinking may seem like it gets you further away from your subject — as it takes you down the disorienting Wikipedia wormholes of limitless information — it’s likely that you’ll come out the other side a more knowing person, aided by the act writing, even if thoughts must be written in a fog of uncertainty.

This is why I so respect one of the first essayists, the French writer Montaigne. His thoughts are not emboldened with conviction, but festooned with doubt. And somehow he was able to use his doubt as a source of creative energy. Doubt was his reason to write. Doubt, after all, unlike simple-minded faith, requires that we try to paint the complexity of ourselves with a painstaking diligence, so that the skies of our mind are not merely “blue,” but colored, to the best of our abilities and with our feeble palette of English words, with its thousands of subtleties and shades.

I suppose I’d like for this entry to be a declaration that I’ll force myself to write again, so as to reclaim the weekly fulfillment that comes with the expression of a (foggy) idea, but as one who, as stated above, starts things more than he finishes, I’ll spare the reader the excited and hopeful tone, as it’s probably safer to think of this entry as a nighttime “leg kick” — just a jerky sign of life — from a blog that’s fallen into a deep sleep.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The last ride

So I decided to move to Nebraska. 

I've been working on Trespassing across America for ages, and I always knew I had to return to the Plains to finish the book. (How could I write about a region as unique as the Great Plains from a North Carolinian forest?) 

I wanted to write the book with a prairie gale in my hair, within smelling distance of a fresh cow pie, beneath the black skies and their wheeling stars, and I figured that, somehow, by living on the plains, the plains - their very spirit - would end up in my book.

The publishing industry gave it the thumbs up and now that I knew I had money on the way, I knew that it was time to finally pull the trigger: I needed to pack my things and go. I contacted my good friends in Nebraska - the Hammond family (who I'd met on my KXL hike) - and they said they had extra room in a spare building on their property if I wanted a home base for my writing project. 

I took the road up through Virginia to Floyd, so I could purchase some Appalachian wine, beer, and honey for my new hosts, and then proceeded to follow a fairly uninteresting interstate route through West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, while listening to a relentlessly-entertaining playlist of Radio Lab podcasts. 

Years ago, I remember driving over a surprisingly scenic byway of Iowa, so I aimed to cross the state on the morning of the day I'd make it into Nebraska. 

The van, though, was acting a little funny. At first, there was a weird flapping noise under the hood. I was fairly disgusted because I assumed it was yet another serpentine belt problem. I'd had two belt-related repairs and two new belts in the past six months. Not thinking it was serious, I continued on. However, the flapping stopped and the engine just became gradually louder and more vacuum-like. I checked my fluids, bought a gallon of coolant, and continued on, hoping I'd reach Nebraska before any damage was done. 

Despite all the weird noises, the van was still running fine, and I had no reason to believe it wouldn't make it. 

But near Toledo, Iowa, I noticed that the temperature gauge was all the way over on "Hot." It was a Saturday, so no mechanic shops were open, but a cashier at a gas station said there was an Advanced Auto Parts in Marshalltown, the next town over, about twenty miles to the west. I let the van cool down and proceeded to Marshalltown, but the gauge steadily pointed toward the "Hot" symbol again. 

When I drove into the Advanced Auto parking lot, a gangly mechanic who'd been working on his own vehicle gave my van and its weird noises a concerned look, coming over as soon as I parked it. 

He was impressed with the hotness of my engine, and quickly gathered that I knew nothing about the inner workings of vehicles when I unconfidently muttered something about the temperature gauge (which I think I called the "heat gauge"), while sloppily interchanging the terms "coolant," "radiator fluid," and "antifreeze"--the difference of which, if there is one, is and was unknown to me. 

As usual with mechanics, I stayed quiet and knowingly nodded as he explained what could be wrong, which I knew was my best chance at giving him the impression that I wasn't a complete idiot. 

"Hmm. You think?" I said, as if I was weighing the possibilities, but also concealing my own, perhaps superior, theories. 

"You high?" he asked. 

"Am I high?" I said, taken aback. "Mmm. No." 

"You look like it. Your eyes are all red." 

"I've just been driving a lot," I said, before offering the obligatory, "not that there's anything wrong with it."

"I'd be gettin' high all the time if I wasn't workin' on my CDL," he said. 

"What's a CDL?"

He gave me a look of disbelief, and said I needed to add two jugs of coolant and not drive anywhere that evening so that I could have it checked out in town the next morning. I thought I was working with an Advanced Auto guy the whole time, but soon a dapper young man in a red shirt came out, and I realized that my gangly conversant was just a customer, albeit a knowledgeable one whose assessment I trusted. 

Still, I disobeyed his warnings, and continued along the highway as soon as the van had cooled. I advanced only five miles before the van started overheating again. I realized there was something seriously wrong with the van, so I called AAA for a tow. When the AAA guy started the van up so he could drive it onto the towing platform of his truck, the engine rattled noisily. It was a noise I'd never heard before, a faint sputtering of machine-gun fire, a pinball bouncing erratically under the hood. He told me to fear the worst. 

I spent my hours in town at the laundromat, where I pilfered free Internet and watched two episodes of The Wire, occasionally scouring online ads for used cars in Marshalltown, and being generally disappointed with my options. 

A man and woman, whose faces were thoroughly pierced and whose arms were almost completely covered in tattoos, were doing their wash. When I stepped out for fresh air, the man stepped out, too, walking toward a nearby gas station. In mid-stride, he lamented to me about the poor weather coming our way, since it would interfere with his body suspension ritual (in which people hang from metal hooks pierced into their body). When he returned, I asked him, "Did you say 'body suspension?'" He talked for nearly half an hour about how he and his lady-friend had moved from Florida to Iowa because of Iowa's lax regulations on body suspension. He said being hanged from hooks was therapeutic, but it sounded awfully unpleasant to me. He brought his lady-friend over, turned her around, and pulled down her tank top, revealing four dried streams of blood wiggling down her back.  

I slept in the van with all my belongings, parked in the lot of a mechanic who I hoped would give me good news in the morning. As far as sleeping in a van goes, that night was about as bad as it gets: It was unbearably hot, intolerably humid, my forehead was beaded with sweat, and my sheets beneath me were grossly clinging to my skin. Around midnight, I opened the side door for momentary relief, and saw two cars nearby full of quiet people, which scared the crap out of me, especially since I had with me every valuable possession I owned. 

In the morning, the mechanic tried to start the engine, but nothing was happening, and after he tried and failed to give it a jump, he declared it dead. The guy from the salvage yard showed up an hour later and pulled out three one-hundred dollar bills, his offer for the van, which he said he'd use for spare parts. I thought for a moment about telling him about my famous van, that I'd written a book about it, and that it was even featured on The Tonight Show with the hope of wringing another hundred out of him, or at least making them all think I was more than some idiot who'd let his van overheat, but I ultimately deemed that to be beneath my dignity, and obediently took the $300. 

I still had another six hours of driving to get to the Hammond's, yet there was no public transportation, and I had too many boxes of stuff to transport anyway, so I called the Hammonds up, explained what had happened, and before I could beg them to come pick me up, Rick said he was on his way. 

Rick arrived hours later in torrential downpours. We hastily transferred boxes from the van to his car. I jumped in the car, but then quickly jumped back out, as I'd forgotten to say goodbye. 

I took a few pictures and laid my hand on the hood. Previously, I wondered if I'd get emotional. The van had gotten me through grad school. I'd written a book and numerous articles about it. It had in some way become part of my identity. I imagined that I'd grow misty eyed, and Rick would respectfully remain silent as I expressed my grief. 

But I felt nothing. In the end, it was just a hulk of metal that had some major belt problems and that had forced me to spend unforgivable sums on gas on the rare occasions I drove it. 

Honestly, I think I should have said goodbye to it years ago. Since graduating in 2011, I never really needed it for housing purposes. I never thought to sell it because it supposedly contained sentimental value, which it apparently did not. It was a van I never felt compelled to name.

The van was like a girlfriend you know you should break up with, but won't out of concern for the mess a big change would make. And you then enter a sort of "relationship purgatory," in which you have one foot in the relationship and one foot out. Similarly, I think I've sort of been living with one foot in the past and one in the future, and the van was one of several things holding me back: a deterrent to mobility, opportunity, and just about the most cumbersome memento imaginable.  

So when Rick and I rolled away, more than regret there was an odd sense of relief, and the feeling that the dispossession of that which had made me "free" in a past life could itself be a gesture of freedom in the present one.