Monday, June 27, 2011

Where the Air is Rarified

We’re at 6200 feet and James Darren is singing in my head. My old college buddy Carl and I are climbing basalt rocks at 8:00 in the morning. It’s already 90 degrees here in New Mexico, and we are on the hunt for petroglyphs, pre-Columbian symbols etched into the rock, presumably by a tool harder than basalt.

To get to the petroglyphs, you drive ten minutes east of the subdivision, park just below a mesa and walk up a dusty unmarked trail, past the “decorated tree.” This is a dead tree with rusty cans hung from its branches. Nobody knows why the random decorating, except for the people who do it.

Up up up, and the trail becomes less trail and more rock. We’re frankly climbing now, three points of contact, careful not to step into tumbleweed bogs – where the spaces between rocks are filled with stickery dried tumbleweeds that obscure the depth and angle of the potentially ankle-twisting space. Carl has reported hearing rattlesnakes up here, too. My eyes are on the next rock and my hands and feet. Every now and then I glance up to see how far I am from the top of the mesa. We’re at a point where if I really stretch and hoist myself energetically for twenty feet or so, I will scramble onto the top of the flatland. Then Carl says, “Brenda, look up.”

I look up. Just above my head, on the flat wall of the basalt that is the edge of the mesa, are alien-looking symbols. Heads with antennae. Spirals. Corn. Eagles. Lizards. Not a “Tiffany loves Ryan” in sight. They’ve been here for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, the artists long dead. Pagan graffiti? Good luck for hunting? Pre-historic art gallery? Nobody knows. But there I am, out of cell and wi-fi range, hanging onto a rock in the hot early morning sun, eyes trying to make sense of what they’re seeing.

Sometimes it’s not about getting to the top.

Friday, June 10, 2011

History Is the Next Tweet

I am living so beyond the future.

That’s me -- To the future and beyond!

If you are about my age or older, you know what I mean – the future was supposed to be 1984. No, 2001. No, the sequel – that really cool one with Helen Mirren and Roy Scheider – 2010.

Now it’s 2011 and wait, what?

(That’s something we say here in the future. “Wait, what?” I think that’s kind of funny.)

First the phone booths started disappearing and the few that were left didn’t have phones in them. They got filled with spit wads and graffiti instead.

Then my phone stopped ringing a year ago. Did anybody else notice that? People don’t make phone calls. They e-mail or tweet or Facebook you. And if you weren’t paying attention to your computer or smartphone – or if you don’t have a smartphone – too bad, because they assume you saw that they were moving that meeting to the other Starbucks.

We had a toxic chemical cloud release from a factory that’s sited near my home, just last month. If you were watching TV or were on a social media site at the time, you got the word to “shelter in place,” in other words, don’t go outside and breathe the air because it would make you really, really sick. If you weren’t, that was too bad, because nobody ever thought to activate the automated “reverse 9-1-1” system where they call everybody in the area and tell them there’s a disaster going on right now. Why bother? It’s on Facebook!

They re-named Depressions, “Recessions” and said that this one ended, but they’re worried that we might slip back into it because the unemployment rate has gone up four more points and the housing market is still dropping and the economy will never recover anyway.

All the stuff I was worried about in the ‘70s is coming true, and some new stuff too! Good thing I didn’t know about global warming in 1969, my head would have exploded. Has anybody noticed that the reporting on climate change has shifted from It’s a Big Ol’ Hoax to Whoa, It’s Happening Now and We’d Better Make Plans to Do Something About the Effects? Look at Chicago – they’re re-doing the whole city, because they’re pretty sure they’re going to have two or three different weather incarnations before they finally settle into a tropical climate only about 90 years from now.

From denial to resignation in about twelve months. That was fast. That’s how you get beyond the future in a hurry!

A friend of mine just got back from a several-year-long adventure. She and her husband unplugged from their jobs in the East Bay and moved to Japan, then walked around the Himalayas for a couple of years, then went to live in China for six months. She’s lived out of a backpack for the last three years. We were eating dinner, catching up, when she palmed an imaginary smartphone and bent her face to it and wiggled her thumb around. “I see people doing this all the time. What are they doing?”

“They’re texting, or tweeting.”

“Yes, but what are they doing? They do it all the time, while I’m sitting there with them!”

“They think they’re communicating.”

You should have seen her face.

“In China, people still eat meals together. They sing together. They get together to talk.”

Yes, well, those poor folks. Guess they can’t afford the latest technology. Ironic that China is where the rare earths come from that make our nifty toys go.

Also ironic that apparently, China and India, the new economic powerhouses, won't be able to offer all the same toys and foods and cars to their populace that Americans can get…because the planet simply doesn’t have the resources to provide that much stuff to that many people. I'm not making this up. I read this in the International Herald Tribune last week.

I remember teaching a unit on Utopian literature to a fifth grade class and asking my students how they envisioned the perfect society, and one boy said, “A place where everything is always in stock!”

Hum, Ryan, what do you mean by that?

“Everybody in the world would have a clothes washer!”

Yes, but there literally isn’t enough metal in the world to make all of those clothes washers , to say nothing of enough electricity, water or clothes to put in them. I don’t think he believed me.

But I ramble. That happens more and more. It doesn’t have anything to do with my age, although I did turn fifty-five this week. What I really wanted to say is, I have figured out the real reason why there’s a push to cut Medicare.

Now, Medicare was about to be the only way anybody could count on having health benefits. I was looking forward to it. Because if you lose your job, you lose your insurance. Even if you don’t get laid off, if you get too sick to work, you lose all that lovely insurance that you were counting on to make you better enough to go back to work. If you don’t have a whole bunch of money, it can be pretty hard to pay those premiums. Or if you are like a healthy young woman I know who has had hemorrhoids, you will be denied health insurance even if you have the money. Or if you are fifty and have ever been to a doctor or ever plan going to a doctor, you will never qualify for self-paid insurance.

But if you could manage to live to 62, at least then you could have some benefits, although more and more doctors don’t take Medicare patients anyway, because they lose money every time they do.

So this is my theory. I think that cutting Medicare, or turning it into a private system where you either can’t afford to see a doctor or the private plan won’t take you no matter how much money you have, is a plan to get rid of everybody with a long-term memory.

You may not believe this looking at me, but when I look out of my eyes, I still feel like I’m twenty-two, twenty-three years old, just with a really long memory and a bunch of critical thinking skills that I didn’t have thirty years ago. I remember lots of stuff, not just phone booths and home cooking.

I remember what happened when Reagan fired all the air traffic controllers and had too much fun with deregulation.

I remember when the richest people in the U.S. made just twelve percent of all the income in the country instead of having one quarter of all the money. According to Isaac Shapiro, reporting for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “New figures from the Internal Revenue Service show that income disparities grew substantially from 2002 to 2003. After adjusting for inflation, the after-tax income of the one percent of households with the highest incomes shot up in 2003 by an average of nearly $49,000 per household while the after-tax incomes of the bottom 75 percent of households fell on average.” I remember that.

I remember when the trees outside my house were full of birds singing loudly at dawn. They made a racket. They woke me up.

I wish they still did. They aren’t there anymore.

I remember when the public schools had stable funding sources and teachers had 23, 24 kids in a classroom. Schools offered shop, Home Ec, and typing. Choir and band were in the curriculum, and the school library not only was unlocked and in use but it actually had a librarian in it. The asbestos wasn’t leaking out of the walls and when you flushed the toilet, it didn’t splash all over your shoes as another acoustical tile fell on your head from the soggy ceiling. Remember that?

It’s inconvenient to have people like me running around with all these dangerous memories in their heads. The continuity and memory and wisdom accumulated over a lot of years has always been something to fear – didn’t you read George Orwell’s 1984? Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past…Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date... All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and re-inscribed exactly as often as was necessary."

It’s better if those people with the inconveniently long memories don’t have Medicare. Maybe they won’t be around as long.

But I’m being silly, of course, because we don’t pose a danger. Who reads mainstream op-ed pieces anymore anyway? They’re all tuned into where all the real meaning is – in a little glowing pad held in the palm.

What’s beyond the future? If you follow a circle, you end up in the same place…and as Santayana pointed out, if you don’t remember the past, you are condemned to repeat it. The new history is being re-inscribed in the next tweet.

Watch the birdie!