Sunday, August 20, 2017

Nuclear Nightmares and Other Apocalypses

Last week, my thoughts turned to civil war and what might be coming our way.  In the week before, I couldn't stop thinking about thermonuclear war--during that week, I started reading War Day, and I'm close to finishing it. 

The book tells about the aftermath of a limited nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1988. Several U.S. cities are obliterated, and San Antonio is nuked into a black glass wasteland.  Two writers, ostensibly the book's authors, Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka, take a trip across the U.S. five years later to see how the country is doing.

I've reread the novel several times.  When I first read it, when it was published in 1984, it felt like prophecy--and of a future that would be arriving momentarily.  When I last read the book in late fall of 2001 I thought that the authors had missed the boat in the horrors that were coming, because of course the terrorist events of September 11 were fresh in my mind, and nuclear war seemed a distant possibility.  Some people worried about terrorists with a backpack nuke, but I didn't--the materials to assemble such a thing would be expensive and volatile and probably lethal to those constructing it.  And the aftereffect wouldn't be as extensive as one might expect.  Recent world events have taught us that one can use much cheaper ways to terrorize us.

Of course, I'm not na├»ve.  I know that since the break up of the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons are less easy to control.  I've always worried about rogue nations like Korea, but until recently, I didn't worry about rogue minds being in charge of U.S. weapons.

The book offers a cold comfort:  even with stable brains in charge, events can go terribly wrong.

As I've been reading the book, I've been struck that it's set in 1988-1993--big changes were coming, but not the ones that the book predicts.  The book does posit that the Soviet Union was weaker than the U.S. thought, which was what led to the nuclear exchange, but those 1984 authors would not have believed the changes that actually did happen.  Some days, I still can't believe it.

It's an interesting vision of a population weakened by exposure to radiation and partly wiped out by famine and flu that followed.  The book shows how fragile our communities are--even nations who aren't part of the nuclear exchange and collapse that follows have struggled in the aftermath.

When I first read the book, I was fascinated by the survival aspects.  These days, I'm intrigued by how economies were wiped out because of the electromagnetic pulse--whole fortunes just vanished.  And what happens in the aftermath?  Some economies swoop in and prosper, while others will never recover.  And regular people just limp along--they weren't that rich to begin with.

I've continued to read dystopias in the decades since this book was published.  I've always thought that dystopias tell us a lot about larger societal fears.  I'm sure that future literary critics will spend great amounts of ink/pixels analyzing why zombie narratives were so popular in our current day.  I watch people behaving like zombies once their smart phones have gotten ahold of them, so I'm not surprised that zombies are more popular than vampires, which were the predominant monster narrative in the days of the AIDS crisis.

I'm seeing lots of narratives about ecological collapse, which is well underway.  But the events of the past weeks have reminded me that a nuclear nightmare will never be completely put to bed.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Disrupted Week-end Plans

This morning was going to be different.  I had bought 4 pounds of bacon, and we would likely have cooked at least 1 pound.  We were going to drink salty dogs (grapefruit juice, vodka, and a salt-rimmed glass) by the pool.  We might have walked to the beach.  Above all, we were going to luxuriate in the twin blessings of sunshine and being together.

My sister and 11 year old nephew were supposed to arrive last night, but she called me at 3 p.m. to tell me that her flight was cancelled because they were expecting heavy weather in the area at the time of her flight.  And because so many flights were canceled and people rebooking, they won't be here until 8:30 tonight.  We are none of us happy about this delay--my spouse may be the most unhappy because he teaches Monday and Tuesday and so this delay impacts him most.  But nothing can be done.
And my sister called later in the evening--they did get awful storms, and the flight would have been seriously delayed, if not canceled.  At least she wasn't stuck at the airport or on the road. 
As I said to my spouse, at least the delay is weather related:  no one got sick, no relative died.  There are lots of reasons that this week-end could have been disrupted, so happily, it wasn't any of those.
I will put this disrupted time to good use.  I have an online class that had major changes made to it--as an online instructor, I receive the course shell, and if I'm familiar with the class, it's fairly easy to input dates.  When the class has been changed, it's not as easy.  And when I get the course shell less than a week before the first day, it's that much more difficult.
And perhaps I'll write a poem.  This morning I had an idea for my Jesus in the world cycle of poems:  Jesus as an online instructor, Jesus musing how the relationship he has with online students is similar to the relationship he has with those who pray and with those who don't.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Speaking Truth to the Local Mayor

A week ago, I'd have been about to head out to a Hollywood Chamber of Commerce breakfast where the focus would be education; a group of us from my school went.  Our speaker was the superintendent of the Broward County school system, which is one of the largest in the country.  Just hearing about all the programs and buildings that he's in charge of made me tired.

Earlier in the morning, when various important people were introduced, I took note of the fact that the mayor of Hollywood was at the table right next to ours.  Afterwards, we decided that we should speak to him.
 The head of Admissions and I went over and introduced ourselves and our campus.  I realized that we likely wouldn’t have much time with him, so I came right to the point and told him that we could really use a bus line on Taft Street.
He said that it wasn’t only up to the City of Hollywood, that we would have to talk to others, like the Broward Transit people, but he would see what he could do.
I said, “We would really appreciate that.  I know that a lot of government attention goes to the beach and the downtown area of Hollywood, and I live in the historic district, so I understand that it’s easier to work for the prettier parts of town.  But the citizens who live out west need government help too.”
He said, “I would like to come visit your campus.”
We said, “We’d love to have you come visit.”
We asked if he had a card, and he didn’t.  I gave him one of mine, and we shook hands and assured him that we’d be in touch.
Will we get a busline?  I know it's not that simple.  Will the mayor come to the campus?  I won't be surprised if he doesn't.  Will the poorer residents get some government attention?  Probably not.
Still, I feel good, because I could tell he was in the process of brushing us off, and something I said (I think) made him stop and talk about coming to campus.  He's a new mayor, and fairly young, so maybe I planted a seed.  Maybe he'll remember that people like me are paying attention.
I also like that my brain is now going in different directions.  I'm thinking of looking up the representative on the Commission that represents the school's zip code.  I'm thinking of a variety of political events and discussions that the school could host.  It's good to start thinking of these things before the next election season goes into full swing.
I'm feeling good because I'm remembering that lots could get done at a local level, when it comes to politics.  I can't make Trump quit sending out tweets that bring us to the brink of annihilation, but if I could get a busline to an impoverished area, that would make me feel proud.
After we returned to our table, my colleagues looked at me with a mixture of awe and something else.  One of them said, "I didn't know you had it in you."  I think it was said in admiration.
Truth be told, I didn't know that I was going to say what I did until the words were flowing out of my mouth.  But I feel like I've been trained through decades of social justice work, both in church groups and secular groups.  One must seize the opportunity to speak to politicians who might be able to make a difference.  One must be polite, direct, and forceful--it's a delicate balance, and one I think I achieved,

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Free Writing to Begin a Strategic Planning Meeting

Long ago, in 1988, when I was in a grad school class that prepared us to be Composition teachers, I learned about free writing.  The rules are simple:  keep writing, don't go stop, don't read, don't ponder, don't worry about grammar, just keep writing.  If you run out of things to say, just write, "I have nothing more to say," until you do have something more to say.  Don't censor yourself--let your mind go where it wants to go.  Above all, just keep writing until time is called.

I have used this technique with every class I've ever taught onground.  I've used it when I've been a retreat leader.  Yesterday I used it with colleagues at the beginning of a strategic planning meeting.

We met in a private meeting room at a restaurant, so it was the first time that I had people writing on cloth tablecloths.  But it still worked.

I was asked to lead the strategic planning meeting, and I wanted us to begin by diving deep into our own thoughts, without censorship.  So I began by saying that we would not be sharing our thoughts unless we wanted to.  Then I led us through the process.

I started by explaining what we would do.  I expected discomfort or protest, like I sometimes get with students, but everyone looked agreeable.  To start, I said, "It's a year from now, and you're at the Hollywood campus.  What do you see that makes you happy?"  Everyone wrote for 3 minutes and seemed sorry to stop.

I moved on to the next question:  "It's a year from now, and you look around the Hollywood campus.  What makes you sad?  What concerns do you have?"  Everyone settled into their writing.

I asked the same questions at 3 minute intervals, only the next 2 were set five years in the future.  Once again, everyone wrote without complaint and without stopping.  I wrote a bit too, even though I had to keep my eye on the time.

As always, I'm surprised by what I come up with, and how quickly I can dip into my subconscious--and what I find there.  In five years, I wrote about outgrowing our space and getting new space that came with a kitchen and a dining space.  I wrote about our new approach to community college:  colleges that eat together to build community.  I wrote about the slogan we created five years from now (verb tense is tricky here, isn't it?):  the school that breaks bread together breaks barriers together.

When I started writing, I had no vision of a kitchen and communal meals.  It took me less that 12 minutes to pull that up.  Was it already bubbling in my mind or did I stretch out to grab it from somewhere else?

We had a good day of strategic planning.  We focused mostly on what we can do in the next year, as I knew we would.  But I liked rooting us both in a short and a medium length of time.  I liked beginning in a place of quiet, with each of us diving a bit deeper into our own brains, with each of us writing separately but as a group activity.

Most of all, I'm impressed with the willing attitude of my colleagues.  Once again, I realize I am lucky.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Wars and the Elderly and Aging

I somehow missed the coverage of Donald Trump's news conference yesterday, but the thought of a president who can't bring himself to condemn neo-Nazis makes me too upset to write about this morning, so let me move my analysis to a slightly different plane.

Yesterday afternoon, I read this article in The New Yorker that analyzes the possibility/probability of a coming Civil War in our country.  The consensus was a 35% chance--but that was before the events of Charlottesville this past week-end.

One of the historians says, "It's like 1859, everyone is mad about something, and everyone has guns."  That's the quote that's stuck with me long after my original reading.

This morning I woke up thinking about how I think about civil wars in terms of young people and their lives disrupted and ruined.  But I rarely think about civil wars and their impact on the elderly--or on people who will soon be elderly.

This morning I had this thought:  of course I don't think about the elderly and aging because books about civil wars are written from the perspective of the young, the ones who go to war, the ones who resist, the ones who must travel long distances.  Those stories are full of what we traditionally think of in terms of narrative arc:  a clear conflict, a clear climax, and often a clear message.

Let me broaden my thoughts and ponder how many books I've read about any kind of war and how often I see the elderly and aging as the main characters.  No book immediately comes to mind.  Do we not see these stories because they don't exist?  Or have I just been drawn to stories of young people because until recently, I've been one of the young people?

In many ways, it's depressing enough to write about the issues of aging without a war as part of the story.  Perhaps that's why we don't see those stories.  We don't see many stories about the elderly and aging, period.  By stories, I mean fictional, not news articles (although I don't remember seeing many news articles about how war impacts the aging and elderly either).

I'll have to keep thinking about the issue of war and how it's depicted.  I'm hoping I won't have the opportunity to experience it all firsthand.  Sigh.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Sold Out Convention Hotels

Yesterday was the first day that we could make our hotel reservations for the AWP conference in March.  I know that in the past, the hotels get full very quickly, so I wasn't going to wait.  By 8:30 a.m.--on the VERY FIRST DAY that we could make reservations--I couldn't get a reservation for the night before the conference starts, March 7, at the conference hotel.  I made reservations for the 2 nights that were available. 

I thought about making a reservation for March 7 at a different hotel.  I thought about driving up very early in the morning on March 8, but the thought exhausted me, even though I'm an early riser.  It is a 5-6 hour drive to Tampa from my house, after all.

By 11:30 or so, the conference hotel was completely sold out--on the VERY FIRST DAY that we could make reservations.  I made an alternate set of reservations at the overflow hotel that has a skywalk to the convention center where the conference is being held.  That hotel has breakfast made to order as part of the cost of the room, along with drinks and snacks at the end of the day.  That hotel has suites, not just a room.  I'll likely keep that reservation and cancel the conference hotel. 

I decided not to make any further decisions yesterday, as it was all vaguely overwhelming and exhausting.

Don't get me wrong:  I'm thrilled that I'll be able to attend the AWP.  But the fact that the conference hotel sells out before noon on the first day that we can make reservations does give me pause about going to an event in the future that will require much more in the way of travel coordination. 

I do wonder if this event is quickly outgrowing the capacity of most U.S. cities to host it.  Many of us assume that any large city can handle this kind of event, but if we want everyone to have a hotel room near the event, that assumption is simply not true.

But for this year, my travel arrangements are set--and I cannot tell you how excited I am to be going--and driving!--watch out book fair last day sales!  I have an entire car to load up with great deals.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Affirming Life

Yesterday was a good day in many ways, despite the sobering events of the week-end in Charlottesville.  We went to church, where we heard a sermon I would have expected to hear, a sermon that reminded us that we are called to be better, both as individuals and as people. 

I often sketch as the service is happening because I'm often at multiple services on a Sunday.  Yesterday I made this sketch:

Years from now will I remember the context?  Or will there have been events so much more extreme that this week-end's events will seem dwarfed?

We came home and relaxed.  We had delicious grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches.  We also made tiramisu.  We were invited to a friend's house for halibut, and I volunteered to bring dessert.  I made tiramisu primarily because I like it, but it's also light in a way, and it doesn't require turning on the stove, a plus in these hot, humid days.

We had a wonderful dinner with our neighborhood friends.  Once again, there was a strange moment when we realized we all had once been at the same school but now no longer had those ties, not any of us.  Happily, we didn't spend much time talking about the politics or the future of the old school.  We also didn't talk about national politics much, although we did briefly talk about North Korea.

It was wonderful to catch up, good to remember why we go to the efforts that we do to live where we do. 

And if you need an easy dessert recipe, this tiramisu couldn't be much easier, although it does require dirtying multiple dishes.

It's from Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts.


I doubled this recipe because I wanted to be sure we had enough; as is, this recipe serves 5 generously, 6 modestly

8 oz. cream cheese
1/2 c. powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 tsp. cocoa
1/2 c. whipping cream
2-4 c. coffee (you can add in some coffee and/or amaretto liqueur)
12 ladyfingers

Whip the cream in one bowl.  In another bowl, beat the mascarpone cheese, sugar, cocoa, and vanilla together.  Fold the whipped cream into the mixture.

Pour the coffee into a shallow bowl or pan.  Soak the ladyfingers for a minute or two on each side.  You can then create individual bowls or one big bowl.  Put the soaked ladyfingers on the bottom of the bowl (and the sides, if you like).  Add the whipped cream mixture.  You could keep doing this in layers or not.

Refrigerate for at least an hour and serve cold.  You can top with grated chocolate or cocoa or raspberries--whatever you'd like.