Tag Archives: American culture

“Ship Fever” – stories by Andrea Barrett

Ship Fever: Stories

This is a collection. I’ve read about half the stories. Excellent! I’m postponing the title story, the longest in this anthology, until I’m ready to deal with disease and woe. Not today…

The back cover says the stories are “set against the backdrop of the nineteenth century”, but at least two are contemporary. The cover also says “…they illuminate the secret passions of those driven by a devotion to, and an intimate acquaintance with, the natural world.” Yes.

Barrett’s writing is concise to the point of compression.

“The Littoral Zone” is contemporary, it’s setting very much like a place where I have vacationed, offshore from Portsmouth, NJ. It tells the story of two scientists falling in love and dismantling their families in order to marry. It reminded me of Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth. I appreciated its brevity.

I also especially liked “The English Pupil”, about Carl Linnaeus (creator of the binomial nomenclature we use to identify living organisms) in his old age, around the year 1775.

I read Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal: A Novel several years ago. Loved it!

I plan to read further among Barrett’s books and other short story collections.

“All Hell Breaking Loose – The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change” by Michael T. Klare

All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change

237 pages plus notes (69 pages) and index, 2019.

I had some difficulty reading this book, despite my very strong interest in the topic. The author, for good reasons, relies heavily on government generated reports full of acronyms and unfamiliar terminology. Maybe this is why to me, the writing seemed “flat” and dull. I was determined to read it anyway. It took me around 6 weeks. I need to return to the last chapter, “Going Green – The Pentagon as Change Agent”. I’m glad I persevered.

All Hell Breaking Loose is organized around increasing severity of military challenges, moving from humanitarian emergencies, which the military is excellently equipped (and quite willing) to handle, through three more categories of conflict (unstable states, global shocks and, most dangerous of all, great power clashes) up to domestic climate disasters and climate change threat to US military facilities. I had trouble focusing until I got to domestic climate disasters. Then I was reading about Hurricane Sandy and other storms that menaced ME and the people and places I love.

To me, the message about the future presented by this book can be summarized by one word – HARDSHIP. It will be difficult to live in a changed and changing world. Setting priorities will be challenging. Providing for human needs will be complicated. The only thing that will become easier is exploiting the resources of the far north, and already the Great Powers are bristling uneasily in the Arctic.

Complicating our understanding of the impacts of climate change is the fact that other things are changing at the same time. Two of the big things are globalization and urbanization. Globalization means America’s concept of “our interests” reaches further than before. How close are we to saying that “everything” that happens “everywhere” is America’s business?

I’m also trying to figure out how to factor in demography, the study of population, and the concept of a “demographic transition” that may be a one way street. See Empty Planet, which I wrote about on August 15, 2019. Another book I need to go back to! Recent news articles analyze the demographic transition in Japan and China.

All Hell Breaking Loose provides valuable perspective on the American military and its role in our culture. As an institution, it seems to me to be more far sighted than some other institutions, like our legislative system with its emphasis on the election cycle. Klare describes what he calls the “military’s strategic predicament”. Their job (described above as winning “great power clashes”) is to protect the US against foreign enemies by use of arms. What will happen when “too much” of the military is occupied with humanitarian emergencies and propping up failed states? What will happen when a concatenation of disasters prevents response to a serious military threat?

This book was published in 2019 but doesn’t take into account  the changes associated with the Trump presidency. Klare points out that the military has not backed off from dealing with climate change – they have simply changed their language, referring now to “extreme events”. How long will they be able to stay on this course?

Recent news articles detail a meeting held on July 20, 2017 at which US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and other high officials attempted to tutor President Trump on the role of the military in foreign affairs. (See Washington Post, January 17, 2020.) The attempt failed. Trump angrily called the country’s highest military officers “dopes and babies”. “You’re all losers”, he told the generals. The meeting so shocked the participants that they agreed not to discuss it publicly, but (inevitably) information was ultimately released.

I wonder what would have happened if the meeting had been organized by Ash Carter, whose book I reviewed (twice) on November 11, 2019. I was impressed by Carter’s description of how he “managed” the announcement that all military restrictions by gender on positions and job titles were at an end. Could he have found a way to speak so that Trump would listen? I wonder what he would have recommended to the high officials who failed in “educating” the President?

As usual, I looked up author Michael Klare. He’s an emeritus professor at Hampshire College in Massachusetts who has written an impressive number of books and articles. Neither his Wikipedia entry or his Hampshire College website is particularly up to date. He writes for The Nation and other periodicals. He’s covered a topic I’m interested in, the issue of undeclared wars. Before All Hell Breaking Loose, he published The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources in 2012.

I recommend this book and this author to those seeking insight into our current dilemmas, both political and environmental.

“UPSTREAM – Selected Essays” by Mary Oliver

Upstream: Selected Essays

“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.” A friend of mine has this message tattooed on her back. It’s a line from Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day”.

When poet Mary Oliver died in January of 2019 (at the age of 83), my Facebook feed was flooded with tributes.

For Christmas this year, I asked for “UPSTREAM – Selected Essays” (2016), since I’m not a good (comfortable?) reader of poetry. In the first (title) essay, she describes wandering away from her family as a young child, wading up a stream and finding delight after delight, beauty and joy, “lost” but ecstatically happy. “I do not think that I ever, in fact, returned home.” Oliver’s biography describes a difficult childhood, and nature was a refuge.

Another refuge was reading. In “My Friend Walt Whitman” and “Some Thoughts on Whitman” she describes how she loved “his certainty, and his bravado” and his willingness to write about experiences that cannot be described in words, that are mystical. She also writes about Emerson and Poe.

Oliver’s reflections on “nature” emphasize relationship. In the essay “Bird” she talks about saving the life of an injured blackback gull. She knows the creature is doomed, but she keeps it alive and becomes attached to it. It is responsive. It even plays. But over time, it’s life slips away.

Some of Oliver’s work reminds me of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

“The Summer Day” ends with a line that echoes in my mind. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Today I spent two hours out of doors. Not a summer day, but still good.

Death Cafe and reflections on attitude

I attended a Death Cafe at Stockton University last week, and was lucky enough to be seated with four students and another community member. Here are some thoughts…

Dear Students,

I was so happy join you at Stockton’s Death Café! Your willingness to do something different on a Friday afternoon warmed my heart. I feel worried, however, about some of the advice you were getting, namely all the messages about the importance of attitude and your ability to accomplish ANYTHING.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for determination, a good attitude and hard work. But how are you going to feel, ten years down the road, if things aren’t going so well? Are you going to blame…yourself? Not constructive, and IMHO, not correct.

Some barriers you will face are outside of your control. Some are institutional and deeply entrenched. Certain aspects of American life are getting worse, due to institutional changes. Consider the student loan system, coupled with the very rapid increase in the cost of higher education.

Here’s a book I recommend:

Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich

Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America

What about our discussion of death? I hope the freedom to talk about it helped you to feel less anxious. Life is full of mysteries, but we’re all in this together. I wish each of you a healthy life and a satisfying career!

“When I Was White – A Memoir” by Sarah Valentine

 

Another lucky grab from the “New Arrivals” shelf at my local library. Sarah Valentine was a mixed race child born into an otherwise white American family.

Ms. Valentine’s childhood was in most respects idyllic – suburbia, good schools, friends, family (including two younger brothers). Her parents were devoted to their children. She was athletic as well as academically talented.

Her parents kept from her the fact that she had a different father from her two younger brothers. She was told that her skin tone (darker than her brothers) and relatively curly hair came from her father’s Greek and Italian ancestors. There’s too much for me to summarize here. Ms. Valentine still identified as white when she finished college, but considered herself African American or multiracial when she finished her PhD (in Russian literature) at Princeton University.

One thread running though is book is the power of secrets. The choice to keep a secret, to withhold important information from another person, is weighty. Secrecy distorted Ms. Valentine’s relationship with her mother and greatly troubled her brothers.

Ms. Valentine was a very high achieving child and continued to earn academic honors during college and graduate school. In this respect, she reminds me of Michelle Obama, whose memoir I reviewed on December 14, 2018. I wonder if the two ever met? Each is a very accomplished woman, but Ms. Obama has never had to wonder who she was or where she came from. Her identity was secure, though she occasionally encountered criticism for being “too white”. Ms. Obama, who has spent at least 15 years in the public eye, may envy Ms. Valentine’s “private citizen” status.

“When I Was White” is a wonderful, energetic autobiography and a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion of race in our country.

Childhood Fears – The Bomb, Driver’s Ed and Amtrak

My corner of the internet is busy debating the impact of “active shooter” drills and other safety measures on the mental health of children. One author asked if any other generation of American children has known so much fear. Symptoms of anxiety are becoming widespread.

I remember my fear of The Bomb. I was born in 1949. By the time I was in elementary school, the Cold War was in full swing. The arms race was hot. By age 8, I participated in “flash drills”. I was taught to “duck and cover”, but it wasn’t at all clear what that meant. Protect the back of my neck? When the local emergency siren sounded it’s weekly test (noon on Saturday), I flopped down with my face in the grass with my arms protecting my head. I wasn’t frightened.

Things gradually ramped up. I lived near Hartford, Connecticut, and I was told Hartford was probably a nuclear target because of an aircraft factory (Pratt and Whitney). I knew that bombs were delivered by airplanes, so the air traffic in and out of Hartford’s Bradley Field and along the northeast corridor frightened me. Then I was told that the planes that delivered bombs were up so high that we wouldn’t hear them. This didn’t exactly help. I was afraid of invisible radiation.

Things came to a head one day. My mother was cooking dinner using the pressure cooker. (Nothing like having a bomb in your kitchen.) The valve got blocked. Fortunately there was a safety valve, which popped loose. The escaping steam made a loud, horrible, screeching, completely unfamiliar metal-on-metal sound. Assuming we had been bombed, I panicked and headed for the basement at a dead run. My mother intercepted me, explained the problem in the kitchen and helped me settle down. I’m lucky. No one mocked me. I’ve shared this as a funny story from my childhood. But it wasn’t funny.

We lived with fear. My parents, survivors of the Depression and World War II, didn’t tell us everything was going to be okay.

How did I “get over” my fear? I learned denial! Hey, we all use it. If we really thought about all the things that can go wrong in life, none of us would get out of bed. Surely we wouldn’t get into automobiles or airplanes. Not today, we tell ourselves. Not in my town. Not me. I first utilized denial the summer I was eleven. I was going to Girl Scout camp for two weeks. It’s hard to explain how happy and excited I was! And I thought “The Russians won’t drop the bomb while I’m at camp.” So I forgot about it, set it aside, and went off to spend two weeks in a tent. It was great. What’s wrong with denial, if it makes it possible to live with something you can’t change?  I knew perfectly well nothing had actually changed between the US and Russia.

I remember the controversy, when I was in high school, over gory auto accident movies. My high school offered Driver’s Education. Some movies went to extremes – showing decapitation, etc. Some teachers insisted everyone had to watch all the blood and guts. Other teachers allowed some students to be excused. I don’t remember the details. I wonder what is current practice. I do know there’s some educational research that may help those who make these decisions. Does putting a wrecked car in which a young person died in front of the high school reduce that chance of prom night tragedies? I wish I knew.

Here’s another experience I want to share, from the perspective not of a child but of a parent. The threat in question was train safety. Amtrak, understandably, wants to keep people (especially children) OFF THE TRACKS. One of their approaches (early 1990s) was to show a safety movie, and one target captive audience was children in schools near train tracks, most of which are not fenced. (Never mind that NO child in our town crossed a track to walk to school.) My son was traumatized. The movie was very upsetting. As a substitute teacher, I had the opportunity to see the film, and, yes, it was shocking. After some general safety discussion (don’t walk on the tracks, look both ways if you must cross), the film showed two children on the tracks. One has boasted that he will stand on the tracks until the train “almost” hits him. Another child tries to pull him off. With a roar and screaming whistle, the train thunders toward them and the screen goes black. I’ll bet my son wasn’t the only child to get upset.

A school shooting is a different type of threat. Parents and teachers are straining themselves to the utmost figuring out how to help and protect today’s children.

So much to consider… children need to learn train safety, fire safety, pedestrian safety, and now, some things about firearms. Our responsibility as adults is to protect children and, over time, teach them to protect themselves. It’s not easy.

We all experience fear. Parents and educators face incredibly difficult decisions. We need to talk.

We are all in this together. WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER.

Riley C Howell, age 21 – Rest in Peace

On April 30, Riley Howell charged a gunman in a classroom at University of North Carolina/Charlotte. He was shot point blank. His action undoubtedly saved lives. The toll was two deaths and four injured.

The graduation picture released by Howell’s family is heartbreaking. Howell radiates happy energy. He is described as a fearless athlete who loved a challenge.

Why did he charge the shooter? Did he expect to die? We won’t ever know.

In my reading, I encountered someone who might offer insight. Frank Delaney’s book Simple Courage – A True Story of Peril on the Sea describes an incident that happened in 1951 in the north Atlantic. Delaney recounts that when Captain Kurt Carlsen had safely evacuated all crew and passengers off  his disabled bulk cargo ship Flying Enterprise, a young sailor/radio operator jumped from a tug boat to the foundering ship. Why? The risk was extreme. He didn’t know Carlsen. Possibly Carlsen would have survived without him. Together, for two weeks, they struggled to salvage the crippled ship, finally leaving it just before it sank.

I wonder what we could learn, if it was possible to speak to that radio operator. (Not having the book in my hand, I don’t know what he said, if anything.) If he is living, he would be at least 90 years old. My review of Simple Courage can be found in this blog dated April 22, 2014. (Interestingly, Amazon’s web site includes a review of Simple Courage by Senator John McCain, who found the book “absorbing, thrilling and inspirational…”)

Howell’s loved ones can frame this however they choose, remember him as a hero or regret his split second decision or both. Their lives will never be the same. My heart aches for them.

Before I could even post this, another tragic death has occurred, of a high school student in Colorado, in similar circumstances.