Saturday, October 20, 2007

After the rain, new grass sprouts

Lately, there has been something fragile about Blogger's software platform, dear reader. I frequently encounter an error message when I try to post photos. As this has been happening for quite a while this evening, I'm just going to write, and try to describe to you what I might have shown, had the interface been cooperating.

It's at times like these that we are reminded what a new and unstable environment the web still is. But that's okay. I'm not much of a photographer, anyway.

Had I been able to rely on images, I would have shown you some brand new sprouts of green grass shooting up through the soil of my backyard. Amidst all the rotting apples, the grass is already reappearing after several wettenings this past week, including yesterday's.

This Saturday in San Francisco has been sunny from dawn to sunset. Actually, the sun hasn't yet quite set, but unless some clouds or fog show up soon, my statement will hold.

My little soccer players competed today; the fields were wet so there was a bunch of slipping and sliding. My daughter's team lost, 4-0; her big brother's team won 5-0.


This blog could easily confuse the casual visitor. I write about anything and everything; there probably is no way to label this space. For example, lately I have been considering dreams and premonitions. My grandmother on my mother's side considered herself able to perceive the future; in other words, she felt she had ESP.

Her visions occasionally drove her crazy, or at least what doctors in her time diagnosed as crazy. My conclusion is that she was sensitive to all the inputs that surrounded her...much as an artist must be whenever she is gathering the impressions she needs for her work.


Trouble is, our societies have always tended not to value artists, or even figure out who they are, until after they are gone. It's a major battle for the true artists of any age to emerge with enough momentum to be recognized when they are still here.

Not that it matters. If it's art we are talking about, the creator knows in her heart as she releases the work.

It's just right, as it is.


Friday, October 19, 2007

Running in the Rains

It may be fun for the players, but for us loyal soccer moms, standing still at the practice field in a chilly rain is something other than what would normally be termed fun.

Still, as I watched my soccer girl and my soccer boy running around happily, my mind rolled back to when I was a kid, in Michigan, playing tackle football in the rain and mud.

Afterwards, there was always a warm bath at home and a cup of hot tea. Hereabouts, it's pizza Friday night, and the four kids present are arranged around various entertainment modules; while the two adults present are hooked up to our computers.

There are times, believe it or not, when blogging still makes me self-conscious. I've never been the type of person who seeks much attention. I enjoy the shadows more than the stage; writing rather than performing; describing rather than disclosing.

I've tried to be discreet on this blog. Many things happen, of course, that I do not write about. Others take time to process.

One such thing happened very recently. Lots of old friends have been popping up, which is nice. Unless you've been reading us from the beginning, a year and a half ago, you may not know that what triggered this blog into existence was the pain of love suddenly and searingly lost.

My girlfriend broke up with me and drove across the country, where she's been working in hurricane relief on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. We've never seen each other over that period, and only infrequently spoken on the phone. We have exchanged emails now and then and occasionally chatted on IM.

Quite a while ago the nature of these exchanges changed from somewhat personal to not very personal at all. Mediated by communications technology, we were able to transition from former lovers to friends living far apart who share a particular passion to try to help the Gulf Coast recover from the worst hurricane in history.

I'd had a premonition about J, that somehow she might be around again. I knew this was happening when I started seeing cars just like hers everywhere I went. One morning, my phone rang and it was her. She was in town (though not her car) and was asking whether we could get together.

We did, twice, for coffee and for breakfast. I also drove her to the airport. She had reached out to me and gotten us together after all this time. She looked great -- I can tell the change suits her. She seems much more relaxed and resolved in her skin.

As I drove away from SFO, I felt happy for her. Free birds need to be free.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Idea World

There is so much to know, so much to learn. One of the main problems of only living x number of decades, from my perspective, is most of us are still developing, I suspect, when we happen to die.

Death seems to me the most arbitrary of our visitors. Who dies when and why? In this context, religion has utterly failed humanity, IMHO. So many valuable lives are lost prematurely, by which I mean the collective we has not yet harvested all the wonderfulness we might have gotten from those who passed away when they did.

You could argue that certain others outlive their usefulness to our common humanity. If the good die young, do the bad die old?

I don't think so. Our lives seem to come and go arbitrarily, protected or extinguished according to some other set of logic. Maybe some lives are too bright to exist for long on this earth. Maybe their lights get snuffed out all too early.

Maybe others don't reach their ability to truly contribute some life wisdom until later in life. When they die, even at advanced ages, the survivors mourn much as they do at the funerals of younger people.

Could it be that it is not how old you are, but what you are still giving to your fellow humans that determines how others feel when you pass on?

After all, we cry for the young, we cry for the old. But we cannot bring ourselves to cry for the selfish.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Ploys in the Hood (A Story in Time)

The part of San Francisco where I live is undergoing a building boom. There are lofts and highrises appearing from behind construction fences all over the place. A few years back, there was a Saturday Flea Market on a large empty lot near here every week, where we took the kids. Dylan found a lovely antique set of brass binoculars there once, and I've always regretted not buying them for him.

Now the former site of the Flea Market seems to be an entire block of buildings under construction. I wonder if the ghosts from those Saturday morning sales will inhabit these new structures? I've never believed in ghosts, or leprechauns, or jinns (Farsi), but Junko does, and under her influence I may be changing my mind.

When I was a boy, all of the adults seemed to me to be so old and stuck in their ways. Suddenly, I realize I qualify as old but I feel pretty unstuck in my ways. On the contrary, I feel subject to almost any new influence that enters my sphere.

Not that I do not hold to a set of central principles, mind you. It's just that I may have hit my peak when I was 21. Then, I seemed to know everything there was to know, quite fiercely. The years since have been host to a process of growing less and less sure.

Is there a God?

(then) No!
(now) I'm not sure.

Do we need to have a revolution?

(then) Yes!
(now) I don't think so.

What's your view of business?
(then) I hate it!
(now) I like it.

Maybe it is not so much a change of perspective, with age and experience, as a loss of exclamation points (!).

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


A couple weeks ago, up north at farm school, I leaned back in my reading chair to look at the sky. I could swear that two distinct layers of clouds were moving in opposite directions up there.

The higher layer seemed to be drifting languidly to the west. The lower level seemed to be racing on prevailing winds to the east.

My eyes focused on the lower layer. After a while, I noticed that two large chunks of cumulus clouds appeared to be separated pieces of a giant puzzle, and as I gazed at them, they seemed as if they were slowly floating back together.

It all reminded me of what I know about the continents on earth; how they separated and how they may still fit back into one another. And also of people. In the end, if we truly love and value one another, we find our way back home.



Photo Courtesy of

From the wires:

Nation's First Baby Boomer Applies for Social Security
Tuesday October 16, 9:02 am ET
By Stephen Ohlemacher, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The baby boomers' stampede for Social Security benefits has begun.

The nation's first baby boomer, a retired teacher from New Jersey, applied for Social Security benefits Monday, signaling the start of an expected avalanche of applications from the post World War II war generation.

Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue called it "America's silver tsunami."

Kathleen Casey-Kirschling applied for benefits over the Internet at an event hosted by Astrue. Casey-Kirschling was born one second after midnight on Jan. 1, 1946, making her the first baby boomer -- a generation of nearly 80 million born from 1946 to 1964, Astrue said.

"She's leading the way for her generation," Astrue told reporters.

Casey-Kirschling will be eligible for benefits after she turns 62 next year. She said she taught seventh graders for 14 years at a school near Camden, N.J., before retiring and volunteering for the Red Cross in Gulf Coast areas hit by Hurricane Katrina.

She and her husband have since moved to the eastern shore of Maryland near the Chesapeake Bay.

"I think I'm just lucky to be at the top of the boom," she said.

An estimated 10,000 people a day will become eligible for Social Security benefits over the next two decades, Astrue said. The Social Security trust fund, if left alone, is projected to go broke in 2041...(excerpt)

Photo Courtesy of

Now I'm not saying it is necessarily the case, but if this happens to be an example of one of those Islamic terrorist operations, you know, the guys who pack a van full of explosives and drive into a police roadblock, somebody might want to advise them that truth in advertising might not be the best way to preserve the element of surprise...

Over here in the Mission District, we're building our little consulting business drip by drop. The good news is your time is mostly your own.

The bad news is nobody pays you if you waste your time.

Remember when that obnoxious catch phrase was being used everywhere: Time is Money!

The guy got it bassackwards.

Money is Time! Time to goof off, have a life, see friends, do errands, walk the beach, take photos, email lots of folks, volunteer, and play with your kids and grandkids.


Monday, October 15, 2007

The Path of Art

Recently, a friend has asked me some questions about writing and photography as avenues for following an indistinct but powerful new urge toward self-expression. I'm fully aware that most people don't think of themselves as "writers" or "photographers" or artists of any kind.

But my experience over many years of teaching, counseling, editing, and otherwise supporting people as they pursue creative impulses is that we all, indeed, are artists, at least in the following sense.

If you listen carefully to your emotional core, and are aware of the rhythms that surge through your body and mind at certain stages of life, you are bound to feel a change when the moment arrives when you have to strike out in a new direction.

Suddenly, almost without warning, your mind starts wandering. Then, suddenly, your eyes start smarting as if you are seeing everything around you in a new light. Walking through your city, it is like you have new eyes that see details that previously remained hidden from you.

The expression on that nun's face, the shine of that apple, the dead rat in the gutter, the way the light reflects off a pair of boots. The movement of that person's body in a pair of jeans walking in front of you, the flapping of those two pigeons taking a bath in the street next to you, the lonely glance of an old man glimpsed fleetingly in the window of a passing taxi, the odd, quizzical stare of a baby who somehow seems to sense you are in a different state, subtly altered from who you were yesterday.

These can be scary experiences, if you don't indulge them when they sweep through you. Many a man or woman has walked away from a happy marriage in this state. Many others have quit their jobs, or somehow maneuvered themselves into getting fired.

It is a terrifying prospect to be all of a sudden out of control. Not everyone can handle it.

But, hold on to the moment, breathe through it, start exploring one form of artistic expression or another, and trust me, a new you will emerge. You may accomplish things you never, ever imagined. Don't be afraid.

Your artistic moment has arrived.

Or, if you prefer, bury all these instincts, intuitions, and urges, and return safely to the fold. Either option is entirely honorable. Art is art. Life is life. Rarely do any of us locate a perfect balancing of the two.


Sunday, October 14, 2007

An idea and a movement

This seems to be my reunion season: the Michigan Mafia softball team, Rolling Stone magazine, now the Pesticide Action Network (PAN). PAN is now 25 years old, and what a dramatic quarter-century it has been.

Many people have asked me, over the course of my decades, why write? My answer has never varied: Because you never know who might be listening.

You may well think I have mixed my metaphors; after all, what does reading have to do with hearing?

Let me tell you another story. A long, long time ago, 37 years to be precise, we were Peace Corps Volunteers, my wife Alison and I. We were both quite good at languages; in fact we scored as the highest two in our small cohort trained in Kabul.

That meant that we got to choose where in the country we would be posted and we chose the farthest place from Kabul (and the American ex-pat community), a remote provincial capital called Taloqan.

This place was so isolated that for roughly three months a year, it was disconnected from the rest of Afghanistan, because the sole road that led there was washed out by the rains and snow.

In this place, we quickly consumed every piece of reading material we'd been able to bring with us. Every book, every copy of Ramparts, every copy of The New Yorker. Soon, the weather changed, and a dry desert heat transformed the area into the high Central Asian Steppe desert it has been since before the time of Marco Polo (whose description of the area was perfect 1,000 years after he wrote it.)

Though my mind continues to wander away from the main point, I must get to the reason for this whole story. One day, reduced to reading any scrap of language that came our way, Alison examined the ingredients on a packet of Kool-Aid we had bought in Kabul some months before.

I heard her cry. "This has cyclamates in it!"

A year or so before, the FDA had declared that the artificial sweetener Cyclamate was a cancer-causing drug, and therefore was banned from any further use in products sold within the U.S.

To make a very long story short, this incident led both of us to a long inquiry into how such an outrage could happen. It was a sordid story and it took many years to do the necessary documentation.

By then, I came to realize that any product banned, restricted, or heavily regulated by the U.S. government was somehow finding its way overseas to places like Afghanistan.

I won't bore you with the methodological details, but over half a decade after we returned to the U.S., I managed to publish my very first global environmental stories about this phenomenon (which I called the Export of Poison) in Rolling Stone and also through Pacific News Service.

Another half-decade later, my colleague Mark Schapiro and I published Circle of Poison, our book that eventually was translated into many languages and sold probably over 100,000 copies. Like many of the episodes in my career, the documentation of this underground best seller is no more than an approximation.

Regardless, a series of idealistic activists seized on the emergence of the book to create a movement, perhaps the first truly global environmental movement. Tonight, I met these inspirational people once again, for the first time in many years. Monica Moore, David Chatfield, Greta Goldenman.

You may never have heard their names but they belong in the pantheon of leaders who recognized early on how vulnerable our planet is due to irresponsible human activity.

For my part, I am only a simple writer. One who perhaps sensed the metaphor before it became popular. So I suppose my message tonight is write, write, write! Fiction or non-fiction, it matters not. Tell your own stories.

You never know who might be listening!