Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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Alex Steffen’s description of optimism as a “political act” is right on target [“The Bright Green City,” interview by Arnie Cooper, April 2010]. I try to limit my cynicism, though sometimes a little pinprick of it is needed to pop the bubble of grandiose statements that aren’t followed by any action.
Optimism is a struggle, though, when you consider how little time we have to make changes that will slow down global warming. Here in Austin, Texas, we’re developing a new comprehensive sustainability plan looking thirty years down the road. But when the rubber meets the road on day-to-day projects and plans in our city, the rubber most often serves the automobile and suburban sprawl. A recent attempt at a bike boulevard from the university into downtown was met with fierce resistance and few champions. Even many avid cyclists are talking about taking “incremental steps” and making sure we “balance the needs of motorists” when the scales are already lopsided in favor of the automobile.
Being optimistic that baby steps will get us anywhere feeds the problem. Big thinking and big action need to be the core of our optimism. I’ll be looking to Steffen’s worldchanging.org in hopes of finding the tools to keep me from becoming another bitter old activist.
Alex Steffen is obviously an intelligent man, and his optimism is downright charming, but it seems no one has the guts to ask the big question: Do humans really deserve to continue living on this planet we have so carelessly wrecked?
I was pleasantly surprised to find that Alex Steffen realized the need to achieve sustainable living without demanding that everyone lower his or her standard of living or expectations or both. Then I came to the part of the interview where he said that everyone will have to live in cities, jammed elbow to elbow by the millions. I, for one, cannot believe that we will ever manage to live sanely in great crowded masses. Over 2,400 years ago Lao Tzu said that the ideal life for man was in a small village where he might hear the roosters and the dogs of another village nearby and be content never to visit it.
A few pages later Erik Reece [“In the Presence of Rock and Sky”] writes about how we must rediscover our sense of belonging to the natural landscape to recover our own sanity. It seems plain to me that Reece is right. Since 99 percent of human history has been spent either in the wild or in small, isolated villages, it will be necessary for many of us to find a way to live in nature without putting an undue burden on the earth. As Kurt Vonnegut said through one of his fictional characters, “Ah, God, what an ugly city every city is.”
In the April 2010 Correspondence Zoe Weil mentions the UN report saying that animal husbandry contributes more to global warming than all forms of transportation combined. New information about that study reveals that the comparison was not apples to apples.
According to environmental scientist Frank Mitloehner at the University of California, Davis, that report calculated livestock’s contribution to greenhouse gases by adding up the input from fertilizers, feed, machinery, processing, and packaging. In calculations for the transport sector, the report used only tailpipe emissions.
As I read Karl Taro Greenfeld’s short story “Death or Glory” [April 2010], about a brother’s obligation to his handicapped sister, I subtly checked my heart for the weight of my old obligation. I have a sister, four years older, who was brain damaged as a baby but didn’t become debilitated until she was nineteen. Greenfeld’s story prompted me to dig up my old high-school English papers; I had forgotten how many poems and essays I had written about my sister and her mental breakdown. I completely relate to the narrator’s desire to live his own life and to his guilt over not spending more time with his sister. As I went off to college and came home for the summers, I believed my leaving led to my sister’s mental breakdown. After college I came home and never left again. I now live five miles away from my mother and sister and help out whenever I can. I worry constantly about my ability to take care of my sister after my mother is gone.
You would think that after all these years The Sun would be setting, but the April 2010 issue shines brilliantly. Among other gems, Andrew Boyd’s essay “Submit to Mother India” is damn near the best piece of travel writing I have ever read. With humor and wisdom, Boyd teaches a lesson about appreciating another culture through time, effort, and understanding.
Andrew Boyd’s “Submit to Mother India” beautifully expresses what I have learned on my two trips to India: immersion in that culture breaks down your defenses, obliterates your agenda, and challenges your body and soul. At the end you are lucky to lose yourself to Mother India, and you will never be the same.
A smile came to my face when I saw the title of Dane Cervine’s poem in the March 2010 issue: “Enlightenment Is a Bitch.” I recalled when I had just completed my yoga-teacher training at Kripalu yoga center in Lenox, Massachusetts. We graduated two weeks before Christmas, and before we were sent off to bring serenity to the world, a guest teacher bestowed some words of wisdom upon us: “If you think you are enlightened, go home for the holidays.”
I was instantly put off by the December 2009 issue. A vegetarian and pregnant for the first time at thirty-nine, I was horrified to see an interview with David Petersen about killing animals for food [“The Good Hunter,” by Jeremy Lloyd] and an essay about a miscarriage [“Eighteen Attempts at Writing about a Miscarriage,” by Alice Bradley]. Was The Sun deliberately out to kill my Christmas spirit? I put the issue down and vowed not to touch it.
Until I had a miscarriage.
Grudgingly I picked it up and read every word. My miscarriage had begun the same way that Bradley’s had. (I still disagreed with every word Petersen said, but that’s a different letter.) At the end Sy Safransky reminded me that suffering can be a great teacher. As usual The Sun gave me exactly what I needed, even if I didn’t want it.
I enjoyed Jamie Passaro’s interview with Pamela Wible on the trials of practicing medicine according to her principles [“Who Will Heal the Healers?” November 2009]. Her story is the struggle of a caring individual against institutions. I’m part of the minority of Sun readers who oppose the newest healthcare-reform legislation, and I believe Wible’s story makes the case against a two-thousand-plus-page rule book for how healthcare is to be delivered. Like most members of Congress I haven’t read all the legislation, but I attended a legal symposium shortly after the law was passed, and the lawyers who spoke said time and again that there is much uncertainty as to how different provisions of the law will be enforced. This is a story without an ending.
I believe the politicians who passed this legislation were motivated by compassion, but as a result people who are trying to innovate in healthcare will have an ocean of new rules to navigate through, complete with unintended consequences.
It’s hard to let any of my old issues of The Sun go, but I live in a compact townhome. So, even though I feel some separation anxiety doing it, I downsize my collection from time to time. When I have a doctor’s appointment, I leave a few Suns at my clinic. I also plant them in hospital waiting rooms when I visit someone. (I must remember to take a couple with me the next time I travel by plane and leave them on chairs at the departure gate.) And I’ve left copies in my fitness center’s magazine rack. Whenever I see someone slip The Sun under his or her arm before leaving, I mentally give Sy Safransky and his staff a high-five.
Every time I see the Dog-Eared Page, my heart sinks a little. I resist reading these reprints as a kind of protest: Please publish the voices of today! There is much wisdom in these pieces from the past, but has the landscape of this time become so arid and devoid of substance that we can’t look to one another for beauty and inspiration?
When I received your brochure in the mail, my first impulse was to dismiss it as junk. But before dropping it into the trash can, I glanced at a few words by David Edwards: “Once you start to see through the myth of status, possessions, and unlimited consumption as a path to happiness, you’ll find that you have all kinds of freedom and time. It’s like a deal you can make with the universe: I’ll give up greed for freedom. Then you can start putting your time to good use.”
This expressed my own sentiments almost exactly, except I would substitute God for “the universe.” In spite of my bias against literary magazines, most of which are dismissive of religion and spirituality, I ordered a subscription.
After reading The Sun for almost a year, I am pleased to say that it has not corrupted me. As I put away your most recent issue — so that it will not fall into the vulnerable hands of my husband, my children, or my grandchildren — I’m still wondering about other people and their lives. Although there is much in The Sun with which I disagree, many of the stories and articles touch on truths I embrace or allow me to see into the minds of those who do not share my opinions.