Thursday, March 31, 2011

Earthquake II

Just about a year ago, I wrote an essay using earthquakes as a metaphor for “danger that you can’t avoid, can’t really change and can’t even influence.” At the time it was just a metaphor, but now, of course, it’s real. Japan, our first world neighbor and buddy – practically a family member, since it’s hard to even buy a reliable car if Japan isn’t able to manufacture them – is on the verge of melting down in multiple ways, except, of course, for how the traumatized but stalwart, creative and heroic Japanese people are caring for each other under conditions that would make most of us just curl up in a ball under the bed, if we still had a bed.

I belong to a working support group of people who are bent on making the world a better place. Among them are writers, a photographer, a manager and business wizard, a web designer, a graphic designer, a conservationist, a master gardener, a publisher, an information technology guru, a psychologist, an opera singer and several Trekkies. And there are only five of us, so this tells you something about how high-powered this group is. The problem with us high-powered people who want to change the world is that we tend to take on problems that are beyond us. Those of you who have been with my blog for awhile know that I at least won’t be truly happy until the planet is saved, with its species, oceans, atmosphere, peoples, cultures, and oh yes, the attributes of human empathy and love, still intact and healthy.

Maybe a bit too much for me to take on. But at least I’m being consistent. At the last meeting, the facilitator asked me what my goals were for the next ten weeks. I replied that I wanted to finish a book revision, get a new website up and operating, get my book published in hard copy and e-book form and launched. There was a long silence, I remember. The publisher in the room remarked gently that even if I had a contract, with a marketing department, editor, and layout people, that the turnaround was a bit tight. And that January might be a more reasonable target.


One of our members is spending most of her waking hours attempting to save the elephants of Chad. Elephants are highly intelligent, have complex and empathetic social orders, and are being slaughtered for their tusks. (It makes me think of killing Grandma for her teeth, although if there were a profit in it and the kids were poor and desperate enough, Grandma might wish she didn’t have any teeth.) The ivory is sold to China. This situation is dire and urgent. If the poaching isn’t stopped, there will be no more elephants in Chad. My friend is doing her best to garner 50,000 signatures for a petition to present to the Chinese government, asking them to outlaw the purchase of ivory. Unfortunately, Chad is now being visited by the fury of genocide and the threat of a complete collapse of its government and infrastructure, and no one really has time to worry about the elephants. (Well, and it is hard to concentrate, what with that flap with Charlie Sheen and all. Besides, we have Japan and Libya to worry about – and what about the housing market and the cuts to state budgets and our leaders who would rather try to take each other down than govern, and checking our Facebook, tweets, texts and e-mail every five minutes? For those of us with a bit more of a long-term memory, there are the headlines receding into the past, like the Haiti earthquake, the Indonesian tsunami, New Orleans – the headlines recede, but the tragedies don’t).

So my colleague is out there with her shoulder to the wheel, writing, networking, strategizing, educating – tired, frustrated, and soul-sick about this heart-breaking problem. And there really isn’t much of a chance that she will be able to shut down the Chinese market for ivory.

Should she stop trying?

My husband and I have one car, an older model Toyota that gets 50 miles per gallon, and we try not to drive it much. We and our grown children live in a 1500 square foot house with one bathroom, a great garden, photovoltaics on the roof, good neighbors, and which is within walking distance of good transit and about every amenity you could need. We live this way by choice, because if living this way ever became really popular, it would make a difference in how many greenhouse gasses were emitted into the atmosphere, how much petroleum we as a nation needed to extract from Alaska, the Gulf and politically unsavory but oil-rich countries, and how many sweatshops we have to patronize.

Do we really think we’re making a big difference in the world?

No. Well, some. Some of our friends notice what we’ve been up to. Some think we’re crazy, most think we’re harmless, a few have been inspired to try a few changes themselves. Our kids have been raised to always think about the difference between wanting and needing, and about how to leave some for the other guy.

But I can do the math. I know that really, I am not making any measurable impact on the world at all. My lonely shoulder can’t bend the arc of history by itself. I have to face that fact daily, or not.

Wise people have been writing for thousands of years about how to deal with problems bigger than one person, and here is some of their wisdom, paraphrased for my refrigerator:

Let your own hands be clean.

The fact that a problem can’t be resolved by you alone does not relieve you of the responsibility of working at its resolution.

All great problems that are worthy of attention are bigger than one person. Do your part as long as you can, and know that there are others. And that more work will happen after you’re gone.

And here’s one of my favorites. I like to think I made it up, but I think that really I got it from JRR Tolkien’s wonderful creation, Sam Gamgee –

Keep your spirits up.

And stick together.

If you would like to learn more about the movement to save the elephants of Chad, click here. To sign the petition, click here.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Pet Peeves

I’m not a grouch, really. It’s just that I’m noticing things that bug me. And I’ve decided that the way to make them stop bugging me is to share them with all of you. So here goes – my Top Three Pet Peeves for the season:

Treating Teenagers Like They’re Nuts, Predatory, or Inherently Dishonest

Really, where did this one COME from? I’m the proud mother of a seventeen year old son. He is loving, funny, has personal integrity to burn and works hard. At first it just made me weary to have people say things like, “And you believed him?” or “I’m sorry, I can’t trust a boy to babysit my children.” Now it makes me angry. According to the class in Adolescent Psychology, which was a requirement for my master’s degree, people his age are inherently idealistic, not dishonest. Yes, they are a bit self-centered, and wouldn’t you be if you were doing all the grown-up things for the first time and hoping that you were doing them right? Most teens I know are trying as hard and as anxiously as they can to please the adults in their lives.

The Idea That Instant Success is Normal

My grandfather used to read Oliver Optic. You know, the guy who first popularized the “rags to riches” notion, who wrote books like “Now or Never” or “Poor But Proud.” I’m on the periphery of the entertainment industry here in Portland (that’s a funny sentence, actually), and have been an aspiring singer/actress myself for most of my life. I’m here to tell you, the YouTube-inflated-concept that it just takes One Big Break to suddenly be a superstar does us all a huge disservice. It takes hard work and a lot of time and gumption to be a success at just about anything. Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes about 10,000 hours of doing something to master it. Divide that out by a 40-hour workweek and it’s…well, I don’t have my calculator with me right now. But it’s a lot.

So if you know anybody who’s working to make a living as an entertainer, don’t expect that they’re going to be the next big hit on “Leverage." They’re taking classes, getting to know people, working as an extra, working for free in student films, and oh yes, being a waitress whenever they’re not doing the rest of their 120-hour work week. Be supportive.

Last But Not Least: People Lie Down, Chickens Lay Eggs

I’ve been waiting for somebody, Noam Chomsky or the President, SOMEBODY, to make an announcement, but apparently they’re not going to. You LIE down, people. You don’t LAY down. Chickens LAY eggs. People LIE down. If you lay down yesterday, that’s OK, because it’s past tense. If you lay something down, that’s OK, because you are the subject and the something is the object.

There. Now I feel better. Thanks for listening.