Crisis Effect

Fifty-four straight days of rain. That’s how we roll winter in Western Washington. We can deal with that. We have our rain gear, our waterproof boots and our siped tires. We hunker down, dream of the tropics, and wait for spring, which usually shows up around the 4th of July.

Last week, we found ourselves in the cross-hairs of a typical series of winter storms off the Pacific, but this time the endless warm moisture was mixed with a strong cold air mass from Canada. Snow fell, enough to prepare the ground. Then a little more snow fell. After a pause for breath, the big moisture rolled in and dumped a lot of snow. We can’t deal with that.

By some standards, 12-20 inches of snow is nothing, but for us, life shuts down. We had one day of fluffy winter wonderland. We went sledding at the park, effectively demonstrating my own lack of fitness. We built a snowman, a process that drove Elke the dog into an obsessive fetching frenzy of glee. She was just sure we were going to lob those huge balls of snow across the yard, thus ensuring the most epic fetch of all time. When she understood that wasn’t going to happen, she settled for pre-fetching the snowballs. She dove in and grabbed bites of snow from the snowman-in-progress, then lunging backwards and shaking her head to spray snow on either side. It was a good day.

The next day, the cold began to retreat and here in the Olympia area, we found ourselves in a miserable perfect storm of ice. The trees began to load up and the power began to flicker. Around two in the afternoon, the lights went out. By nightfall the numbers of homes without power was staggering. Power transformers blew with astonishing regularity amidst the pop and crack of trees breaking and falling. We started a fire and listened to the news on the little radio we kept for just that kind of situation.

Without all of the usual electric powered distractions, there is suddenly space to think. Thinking of what it would take to restore power to 300,000 homes, for example. That thought was followed by a quick rundown of steps to take if the power was out for a full week as it was for many people in the area. In our case, the power was back up in less than 30 hours. Barely time to be a real inconvenience. We had firewood, and we had a 20-year-old camp stove for essentials like coffee and canned chili. The worst part for us was the loss of some trees and the soaking cold session of cutting one of those trees off of our back fence before the weight of the tree could crush the fence.

For others, it was much worse.

By Saturday, we were able to leave our warm, lit home to see what the rest of the area had suffered. One short drive through town and the abstract numbers became visible. The damage in some places looked like a bomb exploded. In others, it reminded me of the aftermath of tornadoes back in Tennessee. It was clear that, somehow, a herculean effort was underway. Power was being restored. Trees were being cleared from roadways. People were cleaning their yards – and neighbors’ yards – of shed branches at a rapid pace. Several things occurred to me.

First, it’s hard to imagine what the power repair crews accomplished in such a short time. I saw an interview with one last night. The reporter asked how it was for him in the past week. With a sideways half-smile, he said, “I can’t remember.” If it’s dark and cold in your house, imagine what it’s like on a power pole in the freezing rain.

Second, although we recognize that Americans are good about working together in a crisis, I was still surprised by how smoothly the recovery was going. There were clear examples of cooperation and coordination almost everywhere I looked. People were patiently adapting to the situation and working the problem. That’s a cultural value we should admire.

Third, a little preparation goes a long way. Like most people in the region, we have a kit set aside for emergencies. It’s mostly intended for earthquakes, but it suffices quite well in a midwinter power outage. It pays to give some thought to the risks that apply to your home in situations that are likely to occur and to make the necessary preparations. What’s necessary? It all depends. Are you driving in winter conditions? Make sure you can survive if the car is disabled. Are you at the end of a very long power system? A generator might be a smart investment. Does your water come from a well with an electric pump? A generator is probably mandatory, unless you really like to boil water from a nearby creek. The point is, know your situation and give it some thought. Even if all you get out of it is enough comfort to keep from strangling your spouse, it’s probably worth the effort.

It’s not all rainbows and unicorns (nods to Lori). There are always those opportunists who take any crisis as permission to prey on others. Out here, the low end of the scumbag spectrum are the jerks who just drive up and steal your fallen wood. On the high end are the scam artists who promise to help, then take the money and run. And of course, there are the looters who wait for people to get desperate enough to grab a hotel room for the night, back a truck up to the empty house, and make off with whatever they please, knowing full well that law enforcement is busy with too much to cover.

In a more benign sense, there are others who pose a danger in crisis. Yes, I’m looking at you, idiot drivers. I heard one report of over 300 traffic accidents in a single day in King County. Considering the number of cars on the road and the conditions, that may not seem like much. However, imagine that you were the State Police officer who dealt with 30 of those accidents in one shift. You would probably discover that 28 of those accidents were simply bad driving. Would you want to be the oncoming driver when an SUV plows through a pile of slush at 50 mph and shoots across the highway into your lane? Me neither.

So in almost miraculous fashion, life returns to normal. While some of us wait impatiently for someone to reattach the 600 useless cable channels to the house, let’s all just pause and consider the downright heroic efforts that are happening behind the scenes. To everyone, from overworked emergency services and exhausted line crews to the folks operating the shelters, the men cutting the trees off Bates Avenue, and the girl shoveling the sidewalk at the drugstore, thank you for putting it all back together.


Special driving shout outs –

To one of our regular mail carriers. You, oh crazy mail lady, are willing to plow into any old trashcan or parked vehicle that gets in your way, yet you are stopped by a mere foot of snow…

To the minivan driver at Costco. Princess parking is not worth leaving your vehicle tilted at a 40 degree angel on a pile of plowed snow. If it weren’t for the hapless driver in the next slot, I might have single-handedly shoved your van on its side just to make the point. Yes folks, it was that crooked.

To the driver of the massively lifted 4X4. Yes, your truck can go in the snow, over the biggest snowdrifts, even up the steep slopes in the park, but it does not stop any better than a 1983 Volvo wagon when the road is covered in ice. I’m guessing the utility pole was a pretty good hint.




Patriotic Images

Remember the first time you understood that your parents were human? The situation that led you from the belief that they could do no wrong and into the belief that they are just like everyone else, with struggles and faults and concerns and craziness?

Well, let’s apply that to my understanding of America.

My most patriotic images come from the time before I understood that our country operates from the level of typical human weakness, and not from a higher purpose of building the best nation on earth. Indeed, the images came from a time before I understood that some of the greatest nations on earth rose to rule the world and then crumbled away into the past.

I was eight years old at the bicentennial. I remember the tone of excitement around my tiny old rural elementary school, with the teachers wheeling blurry televisions into the classroom so that we could see the activities leading up to the big 4th of July. Later, I remember the tall ships parading through New York Harbor. I don’t remember a word that was said, but the buzz of celebration was unmistakable. Everything bad that was happening in our country at the time was set aside to focus on the fact that this upstart nation had managed to make a 200-year run at freedom. Even at eight years old, I understood that freedom is a rare and precious gift.

Oddly, National Geographic plays into my ideas of freedom. In 1976, they ran an article full of beautiful concept paintings about our future in space. I was in. Hotels on the moon, space stations revolving in orbit, people living in space… That was a future I could accept without question. Everything was clean, white, and curvilinear, seemingly the natural next step in our success as the nation who put men on the moon. What I didn’t know at the time was that we were already done. We were launching a 40-year decline in our space superiority. Yet, the whole idea is still entwined with patriotism in my head, and I suffer ongoing disappointment that we did not live up to that one idealized article full of shiny paintings of the future.

A man named Lem Parks embodied the ideals of America. He died more than a decade ago, but he was the closest thing I had to a grandfather. To meet him, you would see a simple country man with a hard limp. To know him, you would understand that he had done a great many things that we would consider the American dream. He was a farmer, he ran a restaurant, he served in public office, and he suffered and achieved in the best traditions. He also provided some of my own important lessons.

In my hot rod days, I was trying to break a tie rod loose with a hammer. In the classic example of impatient youth, I would hit it a half dozen times and start thinking of quitting. Then I would try again. Mr. Parks heard the commotion and wandered over. I showed him what I was trying to do and he said, “Let me give it a try.”

The old man slid under with the three pound hammer and started whacking. On and on; I was getting tired just watching. Twenty full minutes later the tie rod popped loose. Mr. Parks slid out from under the car, stood up, and said, “Sometimes you just gotta keep banging.”

This was the same man who told a story of his brand new tractor, back in the fifties. He parked it and sat down on top of a hill to eat his lunch, but he forgot to set the brake in some way. The tractor rolled down the hill, out of control, until it hit a stump in his lower field and broke clean in half. Mr. Parks ran after the tractor, of course. He said that when he reached it and saw the bright new tractor broken in two, he just fell to the ground and cried.

His farm was in the valley of the Duck River (you may recognize the name from Renewal). In the late sixties, the Tennessee Valley Authority set out to build a flood control lake on that land. He eventually moved his house up to the top of the hill where I grew up. I always wondered what it was like to have a beautiful view of the water where his life once stood.

He told me a story of how things were in that community before the lake was built. Periodically, the Duck River would flood and wash away the only bridge for miles. The farming community depended on that wooden bridge for daily survival. They did not wait for the county to fix it. They did not look for anyone to sue over an act of God. They, as a community, simply took a couple of days and rebuilt the bridge. Could you imagine that happening today? Even if it would occur to folks to fix the problem themselves, the government would descend like vultures to squelch the process with a mountain of regulation.

One final Mr. Parks example. He and his wife ran a little cafe in Nashville in the forties. He told me that one day, a man and his young wife came in the door. They were embroiled in a loud argument which was embarrassing everyone in the place. At the high point in the argument, the man began to beat his wife, right there in public. Without hesitation, Mr. Parks stepped from behind the counter, and along with five other men, proceeded to beat the crap out of the angry husband. The police came and arrested the man who beat his wife. It never even occurred to them to question the acts of the men who came to the woman’s defense. It was expected of them in those days. In telling the story, Mr. Parks continued talking for quite some time, pondering the fact that he and those men would all be in jail if the same thing happened today.

My patriotic idea of America is one in which right and wrong are understood and mostly followed simply because we care about those things. It’s one in which we continually strive to improve, innovate, and refine. It’s one in which we understand larger purpose and sacrifice, and are willing to work in the manner our ideals lead us. It’s one in which we understand that the help we give comes back to help us all. And finally, it’s one in which we decide that American culture is more than the sum of its parts, worth preserving as we work to make it better.

This article reminded me that we also need to be a competitive culture. That’s how we got to the top of the heap, and the loss of that value is how we are slowly (some would say rapidly) sliding down the back slope. As we look around and see that our nation has become the parents who are suddenly no better than any random adults in the neighborhood, someone please tell me why we can’t be all of these things, and more.

In Soviet Russia (er… America), Politics Elect You

I don’t write much about politics. Not directly. I do pay attention to politics, among other facets of the world that combine to create our existence. My views could definitely be considered unsophisticated (just like my writing), and I make up for it by listening carefully to what other people say. The trick, of course, is to listen without adopting the wrong views. How do I define wrong? At this point in our history, it’s a very difficult task.

I was just listening to a guest on CNN talking about poverty, railing about the fact that American poverty is largely ignored in the great political discussions of our time. Before I get into my reaction, let me say that I consider any news outlet as another organization with an agenda, and I spend as much time reading between the lines as I do listening to what they say. In any case, I’ve seen real poverty in a number of places, both near to my home and far afield. I’ve met teens who look forward to a good set of false teeth like I looked forward to a cool car. I’ve held children who had never seen a white face before. I’ve done mission work in places where the wind blew freely through the outside walls of collapsing homes. I’ve seen people burning broken furniture for heat. Like many of you, I am struggling with the realities of our economy. Yet, I manage somehow to be one of those people who ignore the issue of poverty in this country. I place it into the category of “things that could happen” and fail to consider the individuals who actually live with it – right now, today.

Unlike most political maneuvering, I actually watched the Iowa results with interest. I think my curiosity comes from the fact that I can’t find a GOP contender who doesn’t seem to have some kind of deal-breaking flaw. This is no surprise, since finding a politician of any stripe without major closet skeletons seems impossible these days. If you remember the scene in the movie “Animal House” where one of the guys leads the marching band into a blind alley, you’ll have a good idea of my impression of American politics. The band continued to pile into the wall long after the false band leader made his escape. I did come away with an interesting impression. The disclaimer is that I have read Ron Paul’s books and hoped that we would have the courage to enact enough real change in our system. Is he radical? Yes. Is he ever likely to get elected? No. Why? He is talking about the kind of change that would cost our political class far too much power and money. Nobody who has it wants to let go of it. But… I watched the various speeches and heard the word “I” roughly eighteen million times. In Ron Paul’s speech, I heard the word “we” in the places that everyone else was using “I”. In fact, the only time he used “I” was when he was introducing some else. I came away from the evening with the idea that everyone was an individual seeking an office. If the words of his speech rang true, Ron Paul was seeking election for a cause.

Is his cause acceptable? I don’t know, and I’m open to your views. What I do know (yes, this is just an opinion, a belief) is that we’ve completely lost the original concept of elected office in America. You know, the one where we have a life, decide to serve our fellow citizens for a while, and then go back to that life. We’ve traded it for the idea of political career as a lifetime of privilege, power, and money that is only available to those who manage to hurdle into high office. Even the most generous assessment of career politicians would suggest that the very existence of those people would demand that they rapidly lose the ability to relate.  Those of us who get by without the perks of power in our back pockets probably come to look like strangers, a tribe of people found in the Amazon basin who somehow are not able to function without our political big brothers and sisters to show us the way.

That was the generous view. The cynical view is far more deliberate and sinister, but you don’t need me to explain it. Just look around.

The biggest issue, according to every news outlet I see, is jobs. Jobs are a subset of the economy, which we all know is in bad shape. I can see ways to fix it. You can see ways to fix it. Why aren’t our leaders busily fixing it? Could it be that fixing the economy – even on my simplistic, common sense level – is contrary to the true interests of our leaders? Has our leadership lowered itself to the point that it’s okay to sell out the future for a bulging set of trouser pockets today? I could slice off examples all day, but the one idea that really twists me up is the one that has led to our profound lack of middle class jobs. Everyone understands that it’s cheaper to buy products from cheaper foreign manufacturers. Everyone understands that companies want the cheap labor to become more price competitive and to improve the bottom line. Does everyone also understand that the support of this state of affairs equals a steady exporting of our quality of life? Should we allow it for the privilege of having cool stuff made in foreign lands? Should we allow our leadership to encourage the practice? If we do, it’s only a matter of time before the great American experiment is over. We’ll lose our livelihoods, then our freedom, and we’ll all stand in line for our minuscule slice of the once-delicious apple pie.

Poverty, service, jobs. Just tiny bits of fluff in the giant hairball we have created. It’s not just here in America, either. It’s everywhere. Can we fix it? Sure. Can we fix it without sweeping changes in the way we do business as a nation and society? I’d say it’s unlikely.

Two questions launched this piece. I ask and encourage you to answer them as you see fit.

1) What is your most patriotic idea of America? (Feel free to replace America with your own country, or if you prefer, the world)

2) What is your idea of the most perfect America you can imagine? (Again, I think this question applies anywhere)

Bonus question) If you were given total executive authority for one week and your decisions could not be reversed for a decade, what are the first three things you would do?

I’ll try to answer these questions for myself next time.

Thanks for reading.




One-Stars for the New Year

Hi folks! I received my first two single star reviews in rapid succession. You might think I would be upset about it, but I’m not. As with most Renewal downsides, I’m surprised that it took this long.  Along with all the other feedback, this just goes into the massive learning experience that comprises the process of discovering how to write.

The first reviewer, on Renewal 1, seems most annoyed by the gentleness of my apocalypse and the lack of character struggle. Of course, most of the internal (and external) struggle happens later in the story, and this particular reviewer has only read the first two parts. As for the cooperation of my characters and relative ease of the apocalypse, well, that’s one of the essential things that I’m saying. If we work together, we can get by. If not, we’ve got a mess. I’m sure we can all look around and see very concrete examples of how that idea plays out in our world. It was a deliberate choice I made, and I’m grateful that so many of you want to believe in the power of good people working together.

The second reviewer says that the writing is good, but the serial nature of the story is choppy, which seems to warrant a single star. Okay. I reserve single star reviews for stories that make me downright angry that I wasted my time reading them, but then for me, that’s incredibly rare. Maybe I’m too nice. In any case, this particular gripe is a moot point since I’ve long since decided that the serial release method is more trouble than it’s worth.

As always, I appreciate all the feedback. Everything you tell me goes into my consideration of how I should proceed, and whether it comes with one star or five, it helps me become the writer I want to be. Thank you One-Star Reviewers, and Happy New Year.

Good Find

I may be the last person to notice, but I read about an Android app this morning. It’s called “Congress” and it’s a very efficient way to keep track of what your representatives (and Congress at large) are doing with your future.