Reflections on a Power Outage

I live in Northern California, about an hour North of Santa Rosa, and we experienced a five-day PSPS (Public Safety Power Shutdown) from Oct 26-30. I thought it might be useful (or at least interesting) to others for me to talk about the experience itself.

We did at least know it was coming, which was a good thing. We had no idea how long it would actually last, which was not so good. They said “up to five days.” Could have been one; could have been ten. I’m not sure they had ever done such a large shutdown, but certainly not recently — power could have been out for a lot longer if they had trouble bringing it back up, as they did along the Mendocino coast.

Weather was mild throughout the shutdown. We have normal daily temperature swings of about fifty degrees (Fahrenheit) in the summer, somewhat less by October, so nights can get a little chilly — checking on the web, the low that week was about 40, and the high 86. Forty can lead to hypothermia if you sleep naked on the ground, or get wet, but this is otherwise not deadly weather.

We lost home heating. We have a newly-installed heat-pump system, which is all-electric and (of course) did not function at all. But even those with central gas heating have electric fans and igniters, so those did not function, either. We have a traditional wood fireplace, but those generally cool the house by drawing cold air in through windows and vents to feed the fire; and during fire season here, the smell of burning wood is not charming. However, because the weather was mild, it was enough for us to scrounge up an extra blanket for the bed, and wear layers in the early morning.

We lost running hot water. We have a gas-fired on-demand water heater, but — like central heat — it has electric components which won’t work, as do standard gas water heaters.

We have a gas range, which did work. The electric igniters would not work, but it’s easy enough to strike a match to light the burners. The oven has electric thermostatic control, so that wouldn’t work: no pies during a power outage. We also had our camping stove, with its little Coleman propane tanks, which we could have used. We ended up lending that to a neighbor. We also have a propane grill in the backyard. Cooking was well-covered.

We had clean water and sewage removal. The city kept the systems on, both of which require electric pumps somewhere along the path. We could drink clean water and shower (cold). With the stove, we could heat water and take warm splash baths in the tub, and drink hot tea or coffee in the morning. More importantly, we could get rid of five days of human excrement with a system designed to handle daily effluent.

We had no Internet. I have no idea if Comcast stayed up: it was a moot point, since anything I have that would use it requires electricity to run. I suspect their cable service was down, but I don’t know.

We had cell phone service. The cell towers remained operational, and we could send and receive phone calls and messages, so long as we kept our phones charged.

The level of darkness was impressive. The PSPS began right on the cusp of the new moon, so we had full nights of only starlight, unrelieved by city-glow or moon-dusk or moon-dawn. I had to use a flashlight to find the bedroom or bathroom after sunset, or feel my way around using my hands. Nights seemed extraordinarily long.

We had candles, enough for me to read after sunset. But it takes quite a few candles for my old eyes: you also have to have the book pretty close to them, and my eyes got tired quickly. There wasn’t much joy in late-night reading.

There was also a profound silence. Right now, I can hear a persistent 60 Hz hum in the house. If you listen for it, you can even hear it outside, coming from every house, every power line. With the entire city shut down, it was quiet, the way it is in the mountains. The crickets were loud.

We have an electric refrigerator and chest freezer, and both of those went off and stayed off. We had to pay close attention to food, and ended up losing some.

A lot of the food we normally keep in the refrigerator keeps just fine without refrigeration. Cheese is simply a way of preserving milk without refrigeration, and hard block cheeses will keep for a long time, as well as ripened cheeses that haven’t been cut. Similarly, dried, salted, and fermented (e.g. salami) meats will keep without refrigeration. Intact eggs don’t normally need to be refrigerated at all. Anything pickled or canned doesn’t need refrigeration. Dry goods like crackers or rice don’t need refrigeration. And there is the oldest of all preservation methods, fire: cooking preserves fresh food, though it’s fairly short-term.

Other food in the refrigerator — fresh vegetables, meat, milk — all had to be eaten, or thrown out.

The chest freezer stayed cold. Had there been more food in it, I think everything would have stayed deeply frozen. As it was, we ended up with a thin layer of water at the bottom, though the bags of ice we had in there were not visibly melted when the power came back on. We made judgment calls on what was in the freezer.

The grocery stores all shut down. None of them had enough failover generator capacity to keep all of their refrigeration running for five days: some, like Safeway, had no failover generators at all. They all lost all of their frozen food, and after five days, had to throw out all of their fresh meat, vegetables, and fruits, which people weren’t buying a lot of, anyway, since they had no way to keep it, either. By day three, the grocery stores were all closed, and entire shelves were empty for the next week after the power came back on.

A few other stores stayed open.

Costco kept their gas pumps running: people with generators needed gasoline, and we could still use cars to get around — and ironically, to recharge our cell phones. I saw people sitting in their cars in their driveways, idling, while their phones charged: an expensive charger, to be sure. None of the smaller gas stations could run their pumps, and closed.

The hardware stores stayed open, though they only had small generators to power the cash registers, and the aisles were generally dark, lit only by skylights or worklamps clamped to a shelf and powered by a long extension cord snaking across the floor back to the generator: they had employees who would greet you at the door with flashlights, and would walk you around. They sold out of batteries, flashlights, and Coleman lanterns almost immediately, of course, as well as generators.

A few restaurants and pubs that had generators stayed open, at least early in the power outage, with specials to get rid of their food while it was still good.

Other stores simply closed: without electricity, cash registers won’t open, credit card scanners won’t scan, store lights won’t come on.

Schools and the college all shut down.

They brought in a generator for the library, to provide a working community space, and a place to get news and charge phones.

Streetlights and traffic signals were dark: every intersection with a signal was treated as a four-way stop, but there wasn’t a lot of traffic.

In short, the experience was — personally — a bit easier than the five-day mountain retreat that Marta and I would go to in Colorado every summer: here, we didn’t need to pack in our own water and use porta-potties; nor did it get as cold at night.

I held that mountain-retreat image in my mind, and relaxed into the inevitability of forces beyond my control.

I spent some time writing letters. I had paper, and pens, and during the day, light. I sat in the back yard, at our patio table in the sun.

It was interesting to return to that lost art. I used to write a lot of letters, in the days before the Internet. It’s a lot harder than using a word-processor.

Marta and I also worked outside in the yard during daylight hours, which is how I knew the hardware stores were open: any work around the house always requires trips to the hardware store. We did a little unpacking, took walks. We retired early, rose early.

If this all sounds relatively benign, even pleasant — well, for us, it was. We were quite fortunate.

For others, it was neither benign, nor pleasant. A lot of lower-income people lost food they were counting on being able to eat. They lost work hours they could not afford to be without. Many businesses took a serious hit in terms of lost inventory and income.

In reflecting on this, the big issues were the things that have always made cities marginal places to live: food, water, and waste.

I would say waste is the most important of the three. Had the sewage pumps shut down, the city would have quickly become uninhabitable. It was the first thing travelers noted about many Medieval cities: the stench as you approached it, becoming unbearable once you were walking the streets. Pestilence and plague follow.

Access to clean water comes only shortly behind. Our “aqueduct into every kitchen” model isn’t the only model. Water can be delivered, just like milk used to be, or people can travel to get it from a central source, a kind of urban equivalent to the “village well.” Without water for washing and drinking, however, a city dies pretty quickly.

We didn’t experience any interruption of waste removal or water supply.

What we experienced was the consequence of our reliance upon electricity for fresh food. Again, the supermarket with bright lights, freezers, and electric credit-card readers is not the only model. We could have more corner stores, each taking more frequent deliveries of fresh, locally-procured food in smaller quantities: the “corner grocer” of the sort you find in very large cities, with a cash-only, or neighborhood account-based payment. It would likely mean less variety, more frequent “sold out” conditions, and certainly higher prices.

There’s a basic rule in life: efficiency is the enemy of resilience. When a violinist buys extra strings for his fiddle, it is inefficient: the money spent on strings, and the time spent pre-stretching them, when they may not be used for years, could have been more efficiently spent on something else. Economists even have a term for this: “opportunity cost.” But it compensates with resilience: if a string breaks just before a performance, or even during a performance, the show can continue — otherwise, the show must be canceled.

Our supermarket system is quite efficient. But it is also quite fragile. A five-day loss of electricity exposed just how fragile it is. A five-week loss of electricity would require a completely new system of food distribution, and a lot of chaos getting it set up, possibly including food riots, violence, and even starvation.

That’s in a little village surrounded by vineyards and pear orchards and squash patches. Rural country, close to local farms.

Right now, everyone is angry with Pacific Gas and Electric, because they’re what’s called a regional for-profit monopoly, and they’ve been making substantial payouts to investors and company officers for many years, and “deferring” (neglecting) maintenance on their systems, resulting in failing systems that are causing some of the fires up here. For which they’ve been sued into bankruptcy.

Some people want to “fix” PG&E, and punish the miscreant officers who mismanaged the company.

But the real issue is resilience, which pretty much the entire nation has sacrificed in favor of efficiency. In some ways, this PSPS was a blessing. We don’t need a better regional monopoly. We need a resilient system.

The Phoenix Project in Mendocino County

This Autumn, the Mendocino College/Community choir, in collaboration with the college dance department, will be performing a choreographed version of my Missa Druidica, as a part of their “Phoenix Project.”

The Phoenix Project was inspired by the recent catastrophic fires in California, but it is a broader cross-disciplinary artistic action intended to address the subject of homogenic climate change (climate change caused by humans) that underlies the increasing frequency and severity of big fires in California, as well as other climate catastrophes around the world — and addressing the fear of possible global extinction of our civilization, if not our entire species.

I wanted to write a little about how I see the Missa Druidica fitting into this artistic initiative.

I’d like to start with this image:

strive-on-31

This was engraved on the face of the University of Wyoming Engineering Building when I was in college there. I remember walking back and forth across Prexy’s Pasture on my way between the dorms and the classrooms every day, and seeing this inscription. The building itself was demolished and replaced decades ago, and the new building no longer exhibits this sentiment so boldly. But it reveals something important about the mindset of the early twentieth century. As does the saying, taught to civil engineers in these same classrooms: “The solution to pollution is dilution.”

We see here a view of Nature as something unthinking and infinite in scope: something that can be used as we see fit, striven against with all our might; something that can withstand everything humans can throw at it, or take from it, and not be fundamentally moved. There is nothing in this view that even suggests the notion that our actions could actually break Nature. The seas and the atmosphere will always be large enough to absorb and recycle our pollution. We can never get close enough to actually controlling Nature to face the responsibility of keeping it running.

The true terror of homogenic climate change comes of realizing how profoundly we are out of our depth. We’ve started to move Nature into a different place, toward a tipping-point with completely unknown consequences, and we don’t know a fraction of what we need to know to fix the problem. People have suggested dumping massive quantities of iron into the ocean to boost plankton growth. They have suggested putting up space mirrors to cut down solar influx. They have fielded a series of increasingly outlandish proposals, trying to take even more control of Nature and force it back to what we want it to be. To run it properly.

Failing that, some think we can just pull up our tent stakes and move. Mars, perhaps. Some unspoiled Eden circling another star.

None of these proposals are, in themselves, completely unthinkable. But they miss the main point: if we don’t know how to fix a working system that we broke, we aren’t going to have a clue how to create a brand-new system that works. Even if we did, we’d break it, too.

We’re now like an Olympic swimmer who has naively set out to swim from San Francisco to Hawaii, and somewhere between the docks and Alcatraz, starts to panic at the prospect of drowning within sight of land.

The lesson of homogenic climate change is that our vision of Nature is wrong.

We desperately need a new vision of Nature.

I believe that this is precisely what art — all art — is about: it is, if you will, the sociological function of art. Art provides a vision. It may be reinforcing an old vision, like the endless Avengers franchise in the movie theaters in which clenched fists, gritted teeth, arrogance, manly teamwork, and a few superpowers will overcome anything, even the end of the universe. But art is also what gives us new vision: the inspiration and the hope to do the hard work of figuring out the details and changing what needs to be changed.

Particularly when what needs to change is our own behavior.

Ritual is an art form in which the entire community participates. As a long-time Episcopalian, I came to see all of the standing and sitting and kneeling and singing and call and response as a kind of art in motion, guided by the liturgy of the service. It’s quite beautiful, when done well.

You can compare the Episcopal rite to the Roman Catholic rite, or the Greek Orthodox rite, or the gatherings of the Methodists, or the Adventists, or the Baptists. You can look at the Islamic call-to-prayer, or the Jewish sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, or the Festival of Colors in India, or the sabbats of the Wiccans, or the sacred dances of the Pomo or the Cheyenne. Within all this incredible variety of form and style and color, there are common elements of motion and sound, of coming together and going apart, of introspection and reaching-out, all woven into the art of sacred ritual.

So in approaching the Missa Druidica, which sets the common form of the eight Sun and Fire rites of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids to music, I am approaching it first and principally as art — art that supports a new vision of Nature.

What is the new vision of nature that druidic ritual points to?

The best way to understand that is to experience it, of course. What makes art work is that it imparts the vision without a lot of talk, at a level that goes deeper than talk. But I think I can share a few words about what I’ve come to understand.

The old vision, engraved in stone on a building above, is about power, and domination, and control.

The new vision is about cooperation, collaboration, and reciprocity.

What does that even mean?

I’ll just go straight to the seemingly nutty end of it first, and then work my way back.

Druids talk to trees.

Huh?

Let’s talk about me talking with you. Who are you, anyway? I haven’t published this yet, so this conversation, as such, doesn’t actually exist. “You” are a completely imaginary person in my head. If and when I publish this, it may be read by old friends I know, but it’s also likely to be read by people I’ve never met, and never will. I’m talking to an imaginary “you” that is so diffuse as to be very little different from a blank wall. Yet I sit here writing, one-on-one, as though “you” exist, and as though I know “you” well enough to have this conversation.

The same mechanism can exist when I talk to a tree. Yes, it is — at least initially — an imaginary conversation with an imaginary tree, just as I’m currently having an imaginary conversation with an imaginary you. Depending on my knowledge of trees, it may be a fairly realistic conversation, for my part; or, it may be childish twaddle. First conversations are usually pretty childish — it’s how we learn.

Given the fact that trees actually communicate with each other through complex groundwater and airborne neurochemicals, they may know a lot more about what I’m saying/feeling/thinking than the imaginary-you would suspect. And by that same means, they can talk back to me: forests do speak. This all seems strange to city-dwellers plugged into computers and television screens, but most of the outdoorsy folk will be nodding their heads.

But the real point here is that it doesn’t matter whether I’m “actually” having a conversation with a tree. If I’m taking the time to have conversations with trees, imaginary or not, I will develop empathy with the trees: that’s just how the healthy human brain works. Trees will become a real and significant part of my world.

And that will change my behavior toward them.

In other words, talking with trees gives me a new vision of Nature.

I always think of the elves of Iceland. People in Iceland say, “Don’t piss off the elves.” The people of Iceland recently got worried enough about offending the elves to block the creation of a major highway that passed through elf-country. The folks pushing for the new road, looking toward whatever convenience or profit it offered, were upset about this … this superstition standing in the way of progress. But think it through: the road would destroy something. Roads always destroy something.

Our early nineteenth-century approach to Nature says, “So what? Nature is just dead space between important places where people live and make money, so when we bridge the dead space with a road, we add value. What kind of fool would stand in the way of that?”

Well, the elves who live in that “dead space,” for one. The forest creatures. The trees. The druids.

It’s a vision of Nature that recognizes that all that so-called “dead space” is producing free oxygen for us to breathe, cleaning our water at no cost to us, supporting the fungus and the bees and the small wildlife that allows our agricultural efforts to function at all.

It isn’t dead space. It never was.

This vision of nature is woven through the rites of the Order, and the many other druidic, shamanic, and native traditions, and I simply hope, as a composer, I’ve captured just a little bit of this in the few minutes that the music runs.

And … it’s also pretty enjoyable music.

Why Men Have Balls

Yes, I’m talking about testicles. Why do men have them?

My understanding has always been that it has to do with sperm motility, the ability of the sperm cells to spin their little tails and go swimming up the woman’s fallopian tubes to the egg. At normal body temperature, sperm cells are sluggish, and slow. They need to be slightly cooler than body temperature to really get spinning.

Hence, a hangy-down repository outside the body where they can cool off and get ready to go.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the fall of the United States, and the likely self-inflicted extinction of the human race (along with many, many other species), and it seems to me that testicles may be relevant.

I wrote about a book I read some time back, Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal World, where the author made some rather startling observations about the world we live in. He made a suggestion at the very end of the book that caught my attention, a suggestion about reproduction.

To reprise, briefly, the author points out that pretty much the entire surface of the earth is awash in neurochemicals, and there are vast networks of bacteria, fungal celia, molds, and other living creatures that live in that soup of neurochemicals and demonstrably pass signals to each other, much like the individual brain cells in a mammal’s brain. There is every reason to believe that the earth, as a whole, could well be alive and intelligent. And like every living organism, it regulates its environment for its own purposes, and — ultimately — will seek to reproduce.

How does an entire planet reproduce?

When you look at how life on earth reproduces, it’s highly variable, intricate, and clever. Some yeasts have as many as fifty distinct sexes. Some living creatures ingest their mate. Some lay fertilized eggs, some lay eggs that must be fertilized after they are laid. Some cast sperm into the air, and let it land where it lands. Others have carrier species (like bees) to move their sperm to specific targets. Some just clone themselves.

There is no one model of reproduction on the earth.

When we look at the entire history of the earth in the geological record, we find that for a long time, it was very hot. Water was filled with organic sludge and creatures that ate the sludge, and creatures that ate the creatures that ate the sludge. Land creatures included the dinosaurs, but also vast quantities of plant matter.

It was all of that organic matter, absorbing sunlight and creating complex organic compounds that stored atmospheric carbon and the energy of the sun, falling to the ground and then getting compressed under layer after layer of its own descendants, that became the coal and oil we now burn and release back into the air as carbon dioxide.

And then the earth got cold and stayed cold. One might say, metaphorically, that the Gaian testicles dropped.

What came out of that shift was our modern world of ice ages, temperate climates, mammals, and human beings. And human being are … highly motile. We get around.

We’ve even launched ourselves to different planets in the solar system.

How does a planet reproduce?

One possibility is to use one of its species as a sperm cell — a carrier — to carry living matter and the Gaian genome to other worlds.

Humans, of course, think that it’s our job to reproduce ourselves on other planets: colonies on Mars, and Ganymede, and Europa, and ultimately, earth-like worlds outside the solar system. Glass domes and spacesuits, and all that.

But that’s a sperm cell’s viewpoint. From the larger viewpoint of the planet, the point is not to reproduce humans elsewhere, it is to reproduce Gaia elsewhere — which is an entire biosphere. As we’ve seen on earth, the biosphere is highly adaptable. It started in a methane atmosphere, then adapted to an atmosphere it had poisoned with toxic and corrosive oxygen. It thrives in undersea fumaroles at high temperature. It thrives in ice caves, and cracks deep beneath the surface of the earth. It thrives high in the atmosphere, and some of it can even go dormant and survive in space.

Humans cannot live on Mars. A properly-adapted biosphere probably could. If not Mars, perhaps Ganymede. Or high up in the clouds of Jupiter.

And if life is already there? Even better. The new life coming from Earth will share genetic material with the life already there, increasing genetic diversity, complexity, and the capacity to adapt.

What I’m suggesting is that humans may very well be a temporary species that formed in the cold earth cycle after the earth’s testicles dropped, and that it was always our job to use up stored energy-rich carbon compounds to propel us — as sperm, carrying the Gaian genome — to our neighboring planets. Perhaps, now, it is time for the testicles to be withdrawn back into the hot world, where organic sludge can accumulate solar energy and atmospheric carbon again and prepare for the next cold period, the development of another motile species, and another ejaculation into space.

I don’t know if this is a dark metaphor, or a bright one.

We humans like to think of ourselves as eternal, which is one of the few things we clearly are not. Life on earth has been around for over three billion years. Upright apes are only two million years old, modern humans only 200 thousand years old. Our technological world is less than two hundred years old. We are an eye-blink in the history of life on earth. A momentary squirt.

Now we’ve used up all of the stored carbon we depend on to run our civilization. By “used up,” of course, I don’t mean there is no more. By “used up,” I mean that we’ve passed the production peak, which means that for the first time in the history of oil production, the projected costs of production are going up instead of down. The oil that remains is increasingly harder to get to, and it takes more energy — in the form of burning oil — to get to it.

We would see this reflected in steadily rising oil costs in a sane economy, but our economy is not sane. So the thing to watch is the Ghawar fields in Saudi. Last time I checked, they were still at about $6/barrel for production cost, and the Saudis have apparently made a deliberate decision to hold market share by running at full production until the field is dry, keeping prices low and demand high and their pockets well-lined. When Ghawar shuts down — as it eventually must, though exactly when is an estimate that the Saudis don’t divulge — there will be a huge, disruptive spike in global oil prices. Venezuelan oil is one of the second-least expensive sources, at $20/barrel, so the shock could be a three-fold increase, virtually overnight; actually much higher, because there will be immediate scarcity driving prices up. Fracking comes in at over $40/barrel in the best cases and has no long-term future at all. The “drill, baby, drill” locations touted by US Republicans are purest political hokum: because of location, they would require decades of investment in infrastructure, which makes it far too expensive to ever sell that oil at usable prices.

Eventually — within the next two centuries — it will take more energy to get to the oil than we get out of the oil. Which is like paying $20 for a $10 bill: it makes no sense, even to stupid people, and while we’ll probably see some government subsidies that do the stupid for a while, those won’t last long, because there will simply be no demand for $100/gallon gasoline. The oil economy will shut down, and with it, our ability to boost out of the earth’s gravity-well in a continued ejaculation of Gaian seed to other planets.

Our usefulness as a species will end.

It’s hard to guess how long Gaia will keep us around after that usefulness ends. Maybe a few hundred thousand years, if we’re lucky — it would be a good run. Perhaps we’ll continue to develop technology based on something other than oil. Maybe — maybe — we’ll even stumble upon some “new physics” that lets us counteract gravity with something other than brute force, which would mean we haven’t yet reached our peak.

I wish I could see any of that in our future in our current global political climate. I don’t. I see a hard and fast fall.

But if we’ve accomplished our primary purpose, perhaps that’s … enough.

He’s Not Worth It

An open letter to Ms. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, US Congress.

Dear Ms. Pelosi,

You recently stated, regarding the matter of impeaching President Trump, that “he’s not worth it.”

So a man slips into my house through an unguarded second-story window with the help of an accomplice named Vladimir. He drinks my beer, urinates on my carpets, tags the walls with spray paint, writes huge checks to his buddies using my checkbook, plays loud music all night, threatens the neighbors when they complain, sets fire to the piano, rapes my mother, rapes my dog….

The police investigate, and say, “Yep, he did all these things, and a few more things you didn’t know about. And we weren’t allowed to check out the basement, but there’s a smell coming up from there that … well, we really think it merits further investigation.”

They take the report to the prosecutor, and she says,

“He’s not worth it.”

Of course, he’s not worth it. He’s scum. He raped my dog, for God’s sake — who does that sort of thing? He’s not the point.

What you’re really telling us, Ms. Pelosi, is that we’re not worth it. Your constituents aren’t worth it. The integrity of the Office of the President is not worth it. The United States of America is not worth it.

You’re telling us that we’re not worth the cost, and the trouble, of you doing a part of your job you find difficult and distasteful.

Shame on you.

Small Blessings

I was in the grocery store the other day, and ended up in line behind a slow-moving elderly couple. The cashier rang up their total, and the old woman handed the cashier a gift card. I wasn’t paying close attention — I think she said something about a son or relative giving them the card — and then there was an awkward pause. The screen still showed a balance of forty dollars. The old woman sagged. Then she started taking items back out of the basket while the line waited.

My mind flashed back to an event from last Autumn. A neighbor had invited us to a Native event here called the Big Time, where several tribes gather and sing their traditional songs, tell their traditional stories, and perform their traditional dances. After the dancing is a feast, and they announced that elders should go straight to the front of the line. I don’t tend to think of myself as an elder, though I’m in my 60’s now, and so I got in line at the end. The people around me smiled and shook their heads, and told me and my wife to go to the front of the line. They insisted.

It felt strange — and it was surprisingly moving — to be singled out and honored in that way.

How different from our culture, where elders have to stay spry, or they get trampled, warehoused, and buried. Where they have to live on fixed incomes of ever-devaluing dollars, and are given helping gift cards by relatives that are too small to pay for food or other essentials. Where they have to take items out of their grocery basket while the cashier forces herself to wear a stone face as she enforces Corporate Law — taking food without paying is Theft, which is a form of Treason against Free Market Capitalism — and the people stuck in line behind tap their feet impatiently and glare.

“Excuse me,” I said, not quite believing what I saw happening right in front of me. “Are you really taking items out of your basket?”

“I have no choice,” the old woman said. “I have to.” She didn’t seem angry, only tired and resigned.

“You don’t have to,” I said. I looked directly at the cashier. “Put it on my bill.”

The cashier thought I was the most generous person in the world. The woman behind me in line agreed. The couple stopped me on my way out of the store, and the husband wanted to shake my hand, and said they’d never seen anyone do something like that.

It felt good to help, but the excessive praise saddened me, and saddens me still. I put out forty dollars to help an elderly couple in an awkward spot. Forty dollars. It’s a little more than the cost of two tickets to the movies, with popcorn. It’s four bottles of inexpensive wine, not counting tax. It’s two cheap gifts for an office Christmas exchange.

They’d never seen such an act of generosity.

 

One More Day

I stepped into the fortuneteller’s parlor, irrationally worried that someone would recognize my car parked out front. The house was trimmed in a ghastly shade of pink against white wooden siding, and sported a huge sign that proclaimed “Kay’s Psychic Readings.” It screamed “loser” without apology; it advertised a place of empty consolation for desperate people who have run out of even straws to clutch.

That sounded like me.

The parlor smelled of a pleasant blend of sandalwood incense and coffee. I’d expected patchouli and pot.

“Be right there!” called a cheery voice from some back room.

A moment later, a woman came through the open French doors and smiled at me: mid-forties, pleasant face, dark hair with a single broad streak of white in it, tired blue eyes that matched her neatly-pressed jeans and denim vest. Hardly the bejeweled, bescarved, over-made-up harridan I’d expected.

“Hi, I’m Kay. How can I help you?” she asked.

She must have seen sarcasm on my face, because she interrupted before I could speak, her cheery smile marred by annoyance.

“Right, I’m the psychic, why don’t I tell you?” she asked. “I’m afraid that’s lost its punch for me. I’ve heard it too many—“

She stopped talking, and I watched her face go pale.

“Oh, my…” she said. Her mouth worked a few times.

“Look,” she said. Sweat gleamed on her lip. “I really can’t tell you not to do it, because it is your life. But I’d like you to wait until tomorrow. Please. Will you promise me that?”

My hands went ice-cold at her words. I’d spoken to no one about my plans. If she’d picked up that much from my face, she was good — awfully good. Or maybe she was the real thing. 

“I… I…” I stammered like a guilty child. 

“Just promise me you’ll come back tomorrow,” she said, insistently.

“Uh, sure…” The words popped out of my mouth before I could call them back — a promise made.

She rushed me out of her parlor, and said, “Tomorrow. Four o’clock. Eat a light lunch, early.”

Then I was standing on the porch, staring at my bright red Corvette. I blinked a few times in the hazy sunlight, as cars blurred by on the highway and exhaust and oil and dust stung my nose in the brutal summer heat.

Numb depression descended on me like the greasy smog that hung over the city. Even this roadside fortuneteller had thrown me out on the street, just like the doctors this morning — another sign that this world had no place for me.

“Just you and me, Bud,” I said to my car. That, and my good word, were the last two things I possessed. Once I’d fulfilled this last unintended promise, the Corvette would be on its own. 

I decided to go get drunk.


My hangover had faded by four o’clock as I pulled into the parking area. The summer heat blistered the concrete highways again, but today the smog really pressed on the city. It burned my nostrils and lungs. 

The parlor offered a welcome relief from the heat and the reek. The smell of sandalwood still hung in the air, but the coffee smell had been replaced by something bitter and unpleasant, like mold or rotting bark.

“You’re early!” Kay’s voice floated through the house. “Come on back.”

I stepped through the French doors and followed faint sounds until I found the kitchen. Kay slowly stirred a sauce-pot with a thermometer in it. 

“Grab a seat,” she said, and gestured with her chin to the stained Formica-topped table and its array of cheap kitchen chairs. 

“When did you last eat?” she asked.

“Lunch. A sandwich, around noon,” I responded.

“Good. This is almost ready, and then we can start,” she said.

“Start what?” I asked, but she ignored me and continued to stir. At last, she tasted the brew and nodded, then emptied the pot into a large mug. It looked like dirty grey tea with flecks of bark in it.

“We can talk while this cools,” she said as she seated herself across from me. 

“What is it?” I asked.

“Why do you care?” she snapped, a trace of anger in her voice.

I turned her question over in my mind. I’d kept my promise by coming here. Nothing more held me to this earth. Jasmine tea or rat poison or LSD, what difference did it make?

“Good point,” I replied, simply.

“Tell me why,” she demanded, and her tone was thick with anger. I hesitated, confused, and she went on. “Look, I really can see into the future a bit, and the past. But I don’t read minds. I know what you are planning to do, but I don’t know why. Tell me why.”

Her directness and urgency startled me. 

I took a deep breath. “I have an inoperable brain tumor,” I said, quietly. “No treatment. My only chance is spontaneous remission, which is extremely rare. They can’t tell me how long I have — they think months, while my mind is eaten away a spoonful at a time, though it could come more quickly. I don’t have anything to live for, though. That’s all been eaten away, too. My family is long gone. I never married. I have no real friends. I spent the last ten years building a colossal business failure — now the business is in receivership, my employees have moved on, and I have nothing. The question isn’t why. It’s why not?”

Her angry glare softened.

“I see,” she said. “I could try to tell you this is a mistake, that you have a future, but I’d be wasting my breath. You wouldn’t believe me. You need to see.”

She pushed the mug toward me. “This should be cool enough, now. I’d recommend you chug it. It tastes awful. Drink down everything, even the bits at the bottom.”

I swirled the cup, took a deep breath, and chugged it. It went down easily enough, but it tasted like I’d swallowed a mouthful of dirt from a grave. 

“Yuck!” I said, and made a face. “What was that stuff?”

She ignored me. “This is going to take hold pretty quickly, so come with me.”

She led me to a small, warm room with two psychiatrist-type couches side-by-side. One of the couches had wide-mouthed buckets on the floor on either side.

“Why two couches?” I asked. “You didn’t drink anything.”

“I don’t need to drink anything,” she said, shortly. “I’m already journeying.”

Her words made no sense to me. “So, what’s with the buckets?”

“The buckets are for when you heave up the stuff you just drank. It doesn’t stay down. It has a lot of alkaloids in it, and they’re—“

Talking about it triggered a wave of sudden nausea. I just made it to the bucket. When my stomach stopped cramping and I looked up, the room looked strangely off-center. Objects had started to glow.

“BEST GET ON THE COUCH,” I heard her voice say, slow and deep. She had already stretched out on her couch. I’d somehow grown larger than my skin, which felt tight, confining. Do as the nice lady says, I told myself. My own voice echoed in my head. ECHO…Echo…echo…, I thought. I want you to build an ark…ark…ark…. For some reason this struck me as hilarious, and I giggled uncontrollably as I lay back on the other couch and watched the stars painted on the ceiling dance away into the distance.


I regained consciousness after only a few moments. The vile taste still punished my mouth, but the psychedelic effects had vanished. Kay’s couch was empty, but I could hear her singing in the kitchen. She had a nice voice. I followed her voice back to the kitchen, and saw her washing dishes.

“Hey,” I said. She shrieked and dropped the pot she had been drying, then whirled to face me while the pot clattered against the floor tiles. 

It wasn’t Kay. The woman appeared to be in her late twenties. Like Kay, she had short dark hair and bright blue eyes, but without the white streak in her hair. Perhaps she was Kay’s daughter. Her face went sickly-pale as she looked at me.

“Daddy…?” she whispered, her eyes wide.

What the Hell? I thought, the hairs on my neck rising. What kind of scam is Kay running here?

“Who are you?” I asked aloud. “And why are you calling me Daddy?”

She blinked and looked hurt, but then her face cleared.

“You’re so young,” she said. “You haven’t had me yet, have you?”

For the second time today, the words made no sense.

The girl slowly dried her hands on the dishtowel. She smiled at me with unshed tears in her eyes.

“You told me to keep an eye out for you,” she said. “It was always a little joke between us, but you seemed so serious sometimes. You told me that if I ever saw your ghost, I was supposed to show you something.”

She held out her hand and guided me into the parlor. She retrieved a wooden box and a photograph from the mantle of the fireplace, and then sat down with me on the love seat.

The room spun as I examined the photograph. It was a picture of me — an older me, probably in my forties with grey in my hair. I seemed fit and very happy. On a tricycle beside me sat a gap-toothed girl who sported an enormous grin — the girl beside me, but only seven or eight years old. My hand rested on her head.

The box contained a sealed letter, a letter opener, and an item that made my heart jump. I pulled out the item, a painted toy soldier, which carried one of my few memories of my father, who had died when I was six. He’d come home from a business trip in Germany, and he’d brought me a toy lead soldier. I’d dropped it once, and dented the base. I ran my finger over the familiar dent. How had Kay gotten hold of this?

The letter-opener had belonged to Grandfather. My hand shook as I carefully opened the letter, and read.

You are wondering how Kay faked the photograph, and how she managed to obtain personal items from your past.

It’s a little mystery for you to ponder.

While you are thinking, I want you to promise your daughter here and now that you will wait just one more day. I know your promise will hold you. After that, your life is your own. Do with it as you see fit. But give her one more day.

Return here at four o’clock tomorrow afternoon, and meet Kay on the porch. Your last doubts will be resolved.

P.S. — Watch out for the rotten board.

My signature appeared at the bottom. I re-read the letter four or five times. Then I stared at the girl.

This young woman could be a future daughter. She had my jaw and mouth. If Kay was scamming me, it was all far too elaborate to pass up the finale.

“Do you know what this says?” I asked. She shook her head. “The letter asks me to make you a promise. I’ve decided to play along. I promise I will wait one more day. Does that mean anything to you?” She shook her head again. “It doesn’t matter. It means something to me. “

I put everything back in the box, and handed it back to the girl.

“You can keep this,” I said.

As the box left my fingers, I felt a powerful vertigo grip me, and the next moment, I found myself bent over the edge of the psychiatrist’s couch. A thin dribble of saliva hung from my mouth. 

I heard Kay move on the other couch, and stand up. She helped me to the kitchen, where she gave me a glass of water to rinse my mouth. 

“What was that all about?” I asked, as I leaned heavily on the sink.

Kay smiled, nervously. “A reason to live one more day?”

“I don’t get it,” I said. “Why do you even care?”

Kay said nothing.

“Look, you can’t keep stringing me on, day by day. That was a sweet little post-hypnotic suggestion you gave me, or whatever it was, and you got me to wait one more day. But it stops here. Fantasies about an imaginary daughter don’t change my medical condition, and I refuse to end my life as a vegetable.”

Kay remained silent, but her tense shoulders relaxed and two tears tracked down her cheeks. 

“What do I owe you?” I asked.

“Pay me tomorrow,” she said, her voice rough. I sighed.

I called a cab from my cell phone. I’d pick up my car tomorrow, too.

One more day.


It had finally clouded over, and rain fell fitfully and quenched the heat, the dust, and the smog. Cars crawled along the highway like angry beetles hunched against the rain. The cab came to the frontage road turn-off from the highway, and I pointed to my Corvette, just visible ahead. The driver stopped; I paid him, then got out of the cab and turned to find Kay.

I stopped, frozen, and stared in utter confusion at the house.

The pink trim was gone. The sign was gone. The building was there, a dilapidated farmhouse that stood amidst a cluster of abandoned buildings. A small, rusted real-estate sign stood in the front yard. The realtor’s phone number had faded.

I stepped onto the creaking wooden porch. It was the same house I’d visited twice before — through the dirty window I could see the familiar parlor, but empty, without a trace of furniture. I could just see the fireplace and mantle where the box and the picture had stood in my drug-induced dream.

I heard the crunch of gravel behind me as a small Toyota pulled to a stop next to my car. A dark-haired woman stepped out and popped open an umbrella against the rain that had become a gentle mist. 

“Kay!” I called, and the woman waved back, and moved swiftly up the walk. She closed the umbrella as she came under the porch awning, and looked up at me.

“I’m glad you were able to meet me here on such short notice!” she said, energetically. “I think this will be the perfect location, and the price is right….” She trailed off.

I had never seen this woman before. In her early thirties, she had a very pretty face framed by shiny dark hair cut short, and her bright blue eyes could have belonged to the girl I’d met in my vision yesterday.

She looked at me curiously, and said, “I’m sorry. I thought you were the real estate agent.”

“That’s alright,” I replied. “I thought you were Kay.”

Confusion covered her face. “I am Kay.”

I scowled.

“I was supposed to meet another Kay on the porch —“ I said, and took a step back to look around. The porch shifted under me, and I felt as much as heard the crack of a board under my foot. I fell hard.

“Oh, dear,” she said, eyes wide with concern as she quickly knelt beside me. “Are you alright?”

“I think so,” I said. Nothing seemed broken, and I got slowly to my feet. I stared in disbelief at the broken board, the dry rot now clearly visible.

Kay breathed a sigh of relief. “I’ll definitely need to get that fixed. I’m thinking of opening a business here, and I can’t have my clients killing themselves on my front porch.”

“What kind of business?” I asked, still distracted by the improbability of the rotten board.

She smiled. “I’m a psychic. I’d like to go at it full-time.”

“’Kay’s Psychic Readings,’” I whispered. She looked at me strangely.

“Yes,” she said. “That’s what I was thinking of calling it.”

She broke the silence between us. “I’m sorry, this is terribly forward of me. But now that we’ve met, I feel we were somehow supposed to meet today. I owe you for that nasty fall, at least. Could I buy you dinner, say tomorrow night?” She blushed.

In another decade, I’d be in my mid-forties. More than enough time to have a little girl with dark hair and blue eyes. Enough time to watch her grow to at least seven or eight and ride a tricycle. Enough time to write a letter and put a few items in a box. A good reason to live one more day.

“Yes,” I said. My heart felt lighter than at any time I could remember. “Yes, wherever you’d like to meet. I’ll be there. I promise.”


Kay leaned over the edge of the couch and retched into the bucket. She rested in that position, trembling. After a while, she stood and made her way to the kitchen, where she sat quietly at the table. She could see the single lock of snow-white hair that fell forward over her face, taste the bitter rasp of the drug on her tongue, and the sour burn of vomit in her throat. She felt exhausted.

I’m too old for this, she thought, as she stared at her hands. The drug is getting harder on me. But I think I found the right moment this time. Maybe. Maybe I can finally stop searching.

She walked into the parlor and stepped to the window. She took a deep breath, drew back the curtains, and looked out. Tears stung her eyes at the sight of the familiar high-speed commuter tubes, instead of the featureless grey mist that had surrounded the house since she’d become unmoored. Home. She collapsed into a chair.

Her eyes fell on the photograph of the man and the girl on the tricycle where it stood on the mantle. She retrieved the picture and gently ran her finger over the faces. So he was the key. She hadn’t even recognized him at first — he looked so much happier in the picture, and older. He had decided to end his own life, and that decision had wiped out an entire branch of the future. A branch that had included her.

I walk the paths of time, she thought, but I don’t understand them at all.

She had watched her clients make their decisions, guided by the journey-drug and her visions; she had seen thousands of potential futures evaporate into nothing. Children, grandchildren, sometimes even major historic events, would turn to mist and disappear, while new people came into being and shaped different events.

She’d always assumed those unrealized futures simply vanished. But she hadn’t vanished: instead, she’d come unmoored, drifting up and down the timelines, dragging the house with her like a mythical Grail Castle, the house that could be found anywhere, anywhen, but never twice in the same place.

 It must have had something to do with her gift, she thought. So long as any possibility of amending the past had remained, she had existed as a kind of Schrödinger’s Cat, half-real, half-imaginary, trapped in a featureless limbo. She couldn’t leave the house; the doors and windows could not be moved. But she could use the journey-drug to re-enter the time stream and anchor the house for a day or two in some piece of reality that still existed. She’d had to stab blindly into the past, trying to find the point where her existence had come unraveled.

She touched the face of the man in the picture, tenderly. He’d died when her mother was young, but not of brain cancer, and not a suicide. Her mother had spoken of him fondly as a cheerful man who kept his promises, and her namesake grandmother had always smiled when anyone mentioned his name.

She smiled and spoke softly to the picture.

“Thank you, Grandpa. Thank you for waiting one more day.”

Copyright © 2019, Joseph C. Nemeth, all rights reserved

Perversions

I’d like to start this off with a conversation about the “sin of Onan,” or Onanism, as it is known to certain sects of Christians — which they interpret to mean masturbation. Let’s go back to the original text.

And Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord slew him.

And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.

And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.

And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also.

— Genesis 38:7-10, KJV

Wicked Onan, spilling his seed upon the ground. Clearly, God hates masturbation.

Um … slow down for just a second, there….

Let’s put this in historical context. Most patriarchal societies, including the Old Testament Jews at the time of this story, consider any woman the ward (or property) of a man: first her father, then her brothers if her father dies, then her husband, and finally, her sons (should she be “blessed” to have any). This was widely true in the United States until perhaps fifty years ago, and it’s still the case in many parts of the country, to say nothing of the world. It’s pretty much what “patriarchy” is all about. To be widowed in a patriarchy is to become a woman on the margins of society, unsupported, destitute, doomed. As a childless widow, you might as well just walk into the desert and die.

It’s a harsh fate, particularly given that, as a used woman, like a used car, you aren’t likely to capture the eye of a new husband. One of the few traditional reliefs from this fate in some cultures, such as Onan’s, is to become the automatic property of the oldest brother-in-law: that is, if the woman’s deceased husband has a brother, she automatically becomes the brother’s responsibility, and his wife. The rules vary, but at this time in ancient Jewish society, while the widow would become the wife of her late husband’s brother, her children by that brother would be treated as the children of her late husband. Hence, “raise up seed to thy brother,” and “Onan knew that the seed should not be his.”

This is not a story about sex. It’s a story is about inheritance, well worthy of a Midsomer Murders episode, if not a Shakespearean play.

We aren’t given a lot of detail, but it’s likely that Tamar, the wife, was childless when her husband died, otherwise, there wouldn’t be much point to the story: that is, her late husband, Er, had no heirs. Er’s family line would die out, and his property would go to his eldest surviving brother, which we can guess is none other than Onan. You can just imagine the glint in Onan’s eye. You can also imagine how it would tip clan politics, with Onan suddenly acquiring all of Er’s wealth, on top of his own.

So Grandpa Judah steps in, the fearsome patriarch of the clan, and says, “Nope.” He orders Onan to marry Tamar, get her pregnant, and then the children — specifically, the sons — of that union would be considered Er’s children, not Onan’s: that is, there would be heirs to Er’s fortune. And those heirs would not be Onan. Now, you can imagine Onan’s eyes glittering for an entirely different reason.

It’s pretty plain from there. Had there been heirs, this story would likely have taken a Shakespearean turn toward nepoticide (assassination of nephews), but as there were no nephews, the simplest solution was to make sure there would never be any nephews, by “spilling seed on the ground.”

Apparently, Onan didn’t quite get away with it, and in the process, doubtless pissed off Tamar, Grandpa Judah, the rest of the clan, and — we are told — God Himself. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to find that God’s earthly agent of Onan’s untimely smiting was Judah or even Tamar, though we aren’t given that detail.

So how do we get from this blood-soaked story of greed to masturbation? You can read the history of the “theological debates” over the centuries if you’re interested. It’s on the Internet.

What I find interesting about those debates is the way the whole point of the story is gradually perverted from its obvious original meaning, into something entirely different, and — frankly — bizarre. By the time you get to the puritanical commentaries of John Calvin or John Wesley, it’s clear that the entire subject has become perverted beyond recognition or any sensible discussion.

“Onanism” is certainly a perversion — not of the flesh, but of the mind. And yes, if you do frequently indulge in this kind of intellectual masturbation, your mind’s eye will go blind.

But I didn’t really want to talk about Onanism.

I wanted to talk about the Northern Spotted Owl. Millennials have probably never heard of the Spotted Owl, but most old-timers heard plenty about it. It was a huge controversy back in the 1990’s.

There’s a species of bird, the Northern Spotted Owl, that has a relatively limited habitat, specifically old-growth forests. In the 1990’s, the logging industries in the Pacific Northwest were moving aggressively into old-growth forests, clear-cutting them for lumber and profit. It was one of the typical situations we continue to face, where short-term commercial interest comes up against long-term viability — in short, the penchant of commerce, when profits dip, to burn down the neighborhood and sell the ashes — and the legal strategy the environmental movement settled on, in the absence of any reasonable legal alternative, was to concentrate on a single species of bird, the Northern Spotted Owl, and cite the Endangered Species Act to block large-scale old-growth deforestation — or, as the logging industry put it, to kill jobs.

I don’t want to revisit all the ugly histrionics of that period, nor the fires and murders and other mayhem. I’m more interested in pointing out that the Spotted Owl had nothing to do with the Spotted Owl.

Just as Onan’s Sin had nothing to do with spilling seed.

Both stories were about greed.

But I didn’t really want to talk about the Spotted Owl, either.

I wanted to talk about the Mueller Report. And Capitalism. And Socialism. And the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. And Abortion. And the War On Drugs.

None of these things has anything to do with what it claims to be about. They are all perversions: not of the flesh, but of the mind. They are all the result of our unreasoning nature taking a specific story about a limited, single thing, and fetishizing it into a universal ideology — in every case, a perverted ideology — and in the process, making it impossible to discuss civilly, or to come to sensible solutions to real problems.

Why do we make it impossible to find sensible solutions to real problems? In the end, the answer is — as always, among humans — unchecked, homicidal greed: people who are willing to push the rhetorical buttons and scoop up the pocket change people lose in the ensuing fistfights.

This is why we can’t have a civil or even sensible conversation about the Second Amendment. It’s why there is nothing but charred earth around the Right to Life. Just as there was nothing but charred earth around the Spotted Owl.

War is good business for those positioned to exploit it, whether it is a shooting war, or a war of words over perverse ideologies.