The Long Emergency

November 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

I was going to start working, which today means sorting jewelry and setting up a website, late for the season but not too late, and all of you should consider the ecological soundness and social consciousness of giving homemade, exquisite jewelry for Christmas…but that’s not what I started to say. I’ll save my rhapsodies on stone and glass for later in the week.

It’s this. Coffee beans at risk of extinction!

It won’t happen soon. There will be far worse problems before it does. I just feel guilty all over again that those poor shmucks left with our hot, howling planet won’t even be able to fortify themselves with a cup of morning joe. They’ll have to rise from bed in the dark and push back the sea without the lure of that bitter, come-hither aroma that in childhood I associated with the softness of my mother’s skin. The women of the future will stand on their back steps and stare over the withered fields—send the children to check the starling and field-mouse traps—even more bereft of comfort than Depression-era farm wives. Fresh water will become so scarce that the appeal of a diuretic beverage will be incomprehensible.

I realize that coffee isn’t necessary for civilization. In the middle ages, Europeans had beer for breakfast. Things moved much more slowly then. It took a hundred years to build a cathedral, or finish a war. Most people only read one book. News lasted months. Childbirth took as long as it wanted to.

Yet people were inspired enough to court and breed, which is all that’s required of us beyond plowing the fields and feeding the animals, burying the dead and keeping the fire lit; they also had art, music, politics, conspiracies, world travel and adultery. Even so, I think that without coffee, the less-than-genius or god-favored among us would find a drab in our bones, a fretful sulk in our imaginations. Life would become either the all-too-familiar cycle of revelry and hangover, or terrain of a dull sobriety, with none the chatter and jokes one finds at, say, AA meetings.

Reformed alcoholics have the great advantage of having been drunk a lot, so they know it’s possible to tell perfect strangers intimate secrets and ridiculous opinions and then have sex. Years of alcoholic excess remove the 7th grade fear that the squirmy humanity inside you is an alien being. Frail humanity is the only kind, other than brave 4-star generals. Instead, you become deeply depressed by your own squalid behavior and weakness. But that’s fixable with coffee.

Every generation makes its own coffee rituals, from the 17th century coffee house—hotbeds of revolution—to the French café of the 1950s, where caffeine joined literature and sex as the only thing stopping a man from shrugging his gallic shoulders of a meaningless existence. The American diner where they pour the coffee as soon as you sit down, the neighborly offer of coffee to anyone who stops by (including that strange ability of adults born before 1940 to drink it after dinner without ill effect) is forever linked in my mind with a certain annoying jingle that includes the phrase “heavenly coffee”. My breakfast when I was 14 was freeze-dried instant coffee made from hot tap water; I liked getting out of bed no more than 10 minutes before I had to leave for school. I remember horrid Irish coffees drunk at 17 or 18—excuses to ingest alcohol under cover of a desire for whipped cream. In my 20’s and 30’s, I enjoyed writing and daydreaming in the Italian caffes of San Francisco and Greenwich Village, and now—well, you know about now. I’ve never had a pumpkin latte. That doesn’t mean I never will.

Coffee is to our society what psychedelic mushrooms are to certain indigenous groups in South and Central America: the way the world is made sense of, how the frames are drawn. One could even argue that coffee fueled the industrial revolution and caused all this carbon trouble to begin with. There’s little evidence for this; factory workers in the 19th century were still drinking beer for breakfast—and throughout the day, to the consternation of the bosses—but it could be that the gradual adoption of caffeinated beverages in place of beer allowed mass production to become the streamlined behemoth we know and hate.

That doesn’t mean our descendents should be denied it. I don’t like to think of a society sliding into climate chaos without every possible aid to creative decision-making. They might drink synthetic caffeine, assuming wide industrial production of this in a shook-up economy is feasible. Synthetic caffeine is what’s put in energy drinks, and it’s inferior to the real thing in one important way: it’s absorbed much more quickly. That morning hour or two of sharpened thinking becomes 20 minutes of hyper-buzz. Imagine the National Security Council coming up with fifty ways to steal rain from other countries, only to end in an irritated chorus of “as if that would ever work, you caffeine-addled fuckwit,” just before shots are fired.

Maybe beer for breakfast is a better idea, helping us to grin and bear it as humanity slowly whittles itself down to a sustainable level. Of course, “we” doesn’t really mean we. Those of us over 50 will be safely dead. We is the children, the 6 and 10 and 15-year-olds, the children your adult children are planning to have soon and all those faraway faces you see in the Save the Children ads, as well as their kids. Billions of them.

This blog entry is brought to you courtesy of Citarella’s House Blend, a nice mix of dark and light beans from two continents, neither of them this one. Make yourself a cup of whatever you have on hand. Enjoy.

Canvas and Mirror

self-portrait with cats, with purple, with stacks
of half-read books adorning my desk, with coffee,

with mug, with yesterday’s mug. self-portrait
with guilt, with fear, with thick-banded silver ring,

painted toes, and no make-up on my face. self-
portrait with twins, with giggles, with sister at

last, with epistrophy, with crepescule with nellie,
with my favorite things. self-portrait with hard

head, with soft light, with raised eyebrow. self-
portrait voo-doo, self-portrait hijinks, self-portrait

surprise. self-portrait with patience, with political
protest, with poetry, with papers to grade. self-

portrait as thaumaturgic lass, self-portrait as luna
larva, self-portrait as your mama. self-portrait

with self at sixteen. self-portrait with shit-kickers,
with hip-huggers, with crimson silk, with wild

mushroom risotto and a glass of malbec. self-
portrait with partial disclosure, self-portrait with

half-truths, self-portrait with demi-monde. self-
portrait with a night at the beach, with a view

overlooking the lake, with cancelled flight. self-
portrait with a real future, with a slight chance of

sours, with glasses, with cream, with fries, with
a way with words, with a propositional phrase.
Evie Shockley

WordPress sucks. Read this poem with the proper line breaks

Old Devil Moon

October 5, 2012 § Leave a comment


(cross-posted in Open Salon)

We went out to look at the Harvest Moon, but it looked like any other full moon. No round-bellied, pumpkin-colored menacingly gracious goddess for Manhattan—no, a distant, silvery sphere, eager to stay far away from the embarrassment of Earth.

Later, we watched a program on marine life: a large peculiar fish with a squiggly nose swimming in a cloudy hum of blue, then just as we relaxed into that, a sea turtle caught in a fishing net, fighting, winding itself into an ever more impossible knots. I wanted humanity to go extinct then. We’re going to lose millions of species as it is, but if humans survive, they’ll keep despoiling, maybe more carefully, but always taking far more than their fair share of resources.

I would prefer it if a couple of million of us could thrive gently on the earth, spread out, using renewable energy and clean tech to live comfortable, exploratory lives. But if I could chose only survival or not, without conditions, I would end us. And I’d even do it right now, not say, “Let it happen after I’m dead, after the children are dead,” etc. But of course I can’t make that choice, so it doesn’t matter. Instead I try to get back in a fiction-writing mode, vividly aware that my girlish dreams of “immortality” for my work are not only limited by my talent, but more severely limited by what I can imagine future people would want to read from this generation, the generation they will hate the most.

They’ll forgive Homer, Shakespeare and Keats, Jane Austin, Scott Fitzgerald, Balzac, Proust. I don’t know if they’ll forgive anyone who was adult after 1960. Certainly not us. How could they, reading our newspapers, watching our TV—the stultifying stupidity and greed, the utter lack of concern for nature, animals, our descendants….

I think of how hard it is and has been to forgive those whom I blame for blighting some part of my life—and that’s nothing, tiny emotional pain—nothing compared to what we’re doing to the world and future.

They will hate us and envy the world we had, which we complained of. Oh, those terrible, tiny airplane seats, the lines at Security, the taxi lines. Obesity in America! High gas prices! They’ll want to come back and slit our throats; you know they will. The Midwest and West will be like Australia in a bad year; the coasts and river valleys will flood all the time. FEMA will be stretched very, very thin, so thin it will be invisible. There won’t be enough firefighters and the wildfires will take the trees and houses and animals and people and it will be tragic but in other places they’ll wait out the hurricane and wonder: which is worse, fire or rain?

I find it almost more painful to imagine those people and how they will think of us than the actual damage and how soon it will happen. We have no experience of this. We hate the past if it’s hurt us directly—if our parents were in the death camps, or our great-grandparents were slaves—but mostly it’s a tableau of wonder, disgust, drama, oddity: our storybook. Our origins. What we are better than (smarter than), or what we long for wistfully—the pastoral joys of 17th century England, the glory that was Rome, America before the white man came, the dinosaurs!

We don’t look back and say, you bastards. You greedy, evil pieces of shit. How dare you. How dare you. Come back to life so I can kill you, you Richie Rich trust-fund babies, you overprivileged, clueless twits living in your bubble…just look at you on that endless video and film you left behind, how you whine and pontificate, proclaim each other the enemy of workingman, the middle class, the lovers of freedom, the real Americans. Socialist Muslim. Heartless Capitalist. You’re all the same, you’re monsters…you have no clue what life is like for the rest of us…

I’ve heard people say, now and then, that they fear what their grandchildren will think about them. But as a novelist I can’t help but go along with the climate scientists, shouting into the wind: It will be so much worse than you imagine.

And this…

The White Room

The obvious is difficult
To prove. Many prefer
The hidden. I did, too.
I listened to the trees.

They had a secret
Which they were about to
Make known to me–
And then didn’t.

Summer came. Each tree
On my street had its own
Scheherazade. My nights
Were a part of their wild

Storytelling. We were
Entering dark houses,
Always more dark houses,
Hushed and abandoned.

There was someone with eyes closed
On the upper floors.
The fear of it, and the wonder,
Kept me sleepless.

The truth is bald and cold,
Said the woman
Who always wore white.
She didn’t leave her room.

The sun pointed to one or two
Things that had survived
The long night intact.
The simplest things,

Difficult in their obviousness.
They made no noise.
It was the kind of day
People described as “perfect.”

Gods disguising themselves
As black hairpins, a hand-mirror,
A comb with a tooth missing?
No! That wasn’t it.

Just things as they are,
Unblinking, lying mute
In that bright light–
And the trees waiting for the night.

Charles Simic

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