Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Financial Advice to My Children

My parents, who were of the World War II generation, were not wise with money. I inherited much of their lack of insight and foresight, but have tried as I grow older to be wiser about how I spend the money I earn. I hope that my children will be even smarter than me. Here's what I think they should do.

1. Don't accept any credit card offers, ever. As I write this in 2008 it seems unlikely that you'll ever receive one, because the credit industry has foolishly extended credit to people it knew it could never pay it back, to the extent that it threatens the economy of the entire United States, if not the world. But if that could change, and you receive offers in the mail of low interest rates or huge rewards for using this or that credit card -- be smart, and throw them away.

2. Save money from every dollar you earn, and live on the rest. If your paycheck is 300 dollars, save 30 for the future in a secure place (at the moment, in 2008, banks don't seem terribly secure to me, but do some research and use your best judgment). Live on the remaining 270 dollars, which means pay the bills you must pay (groceries, rent, phone and other utilities if they still exist), and try to save whatever else is left after that.

3. Spend as little on entertainment as you can. Get books, movies and CDs from the library and use the internet (if it still exists) for other entertainment, communication and research.

4. Don't eat out more than once a month. It will be tempting to save time by spending more money on restaurants and fast food, but that is money you will never see again and could use for far better things. As I write this, you could buy enough groceries to last you a week for the same price as a night out for two at even a decent, never mind fancy, restaurant. Save such expenses for truly special occasions like birthdays, anniversaries and other celebrations. Learn to cook, it's not as difficult as you might think, and there are few pleasures in life as rewarding as sharing a meal you created with your own hands with people you care about. Try to grow your own food if you can, and eat whole foods largely based on fruits and vegetables. It's cheaper and far better for you than the meat and fat-based "diet" that corporations convinced everyone were "tasty" and "convenient." They were neither.

5. Use mass transit, walk or bike everywhere. The world sent itself to hell largely because of the selfish overuse of the combustion engine. We'd have had oil enough to last for centuries longer if the automobile had been outlawed or better regulated, and the use of buses, trains and streetcars was mandated by law. I expect by the time you are adults driving a car for a trip to the grocery store or a day trip to a city 50 or 100 miles away will be a dimly-remembered dream, but if the average citizen still has access to gas-powered transport, save it for emergencies and learn to walk, bike or take the bus everywhere you go. If you must use a car, try never to use it for single tasks or by yourself -- carpool and do your errands in batches to save on fuel expenses. All this will save you money and help the planet recover from the damage mankind did to it in the 20th and early 21st centuries.

6. Do something you love. You might not get rich doing it, but in the long run, if you truly enjoy your job you will excel at it and hopefully will be rewarded for it. In my professional life I have been in radio since I was a teenager, and I've always enjoyed being on the radio, even if at times I haven't enjoyed being "in radio" per se. I haven't done it for over two decades because of the huge financial rewards (well, except for that brief stint in Public Radio), but because it's something I love and seem to be somewhat good at. And even my most time-consuming hobby, blogging and other writing, mostly about comics, has been done because it's something that I greatly enjoy and that is very important to me. I've been very lucky to pick up some extra cash doing that from time to time, and if you can manage to do that, earn money from doing something you love so much you would have done it without financial reward anyway, well, it's a lot like finding free money.

7. Do spend some money on yourself. Most of my disposable income -- money I can afford to spend any way I want -- has been spent over the years on comics and graphic novels. Now, a majority of that money was probably wasted, because I wasn't paying attention to what books I truly found rewarding versus what books I could just be distracted by for a few minutes. But you can't take it with you, as they say, and you will need to spend some money on something to make you happy from time to time in order not to go insane. Just try to be conscious of how you spend that money, and aim to spend it on things you'll enjoy time and again in the future. Whether it's a much-loved video game, or a book that you can lose yourself in again and again, the more times you can use and enjoy something you spend your money on, the better an investment it is. My generation and the one just before mine wasted huge amounts of money, time and energy on temporary, empty distractions, and again, this is largely how the world found itself in the dire straits it currently faces. Be good to yourself, but be aware of what things cost and whether they are truly worth it to you. Your values will ultimately have to be created and monitored by you, and if you're lucky, anyone you choose to share your life with. Know what is important to you, and never forget to live the way you feel is important, and right, and whenever you can, teach others to do the same.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Two Beautiful Women and My Birthday

“To two of the three or four people left in the world that I can still fucking stand,” I said, making the first toast of the evening. I clinked my gin and tonic with the light beers of my companions, the two most beautiful women I work with. Colleen, a year or so younger than me, drank from her Bud Light. Jude, 27 and therefore over a decade younger than either Colleen or I, was drinking Miller Light. We were sitting too close to the speakers in a cramped bar in upstate New York, having just claimed a table after walking in and getting our first round of drinks. I’d had a shitty couple of days, primarily because it was my birthday the day before and I was profoundly disappointed my wife did nothing of any consequence at all to mark my 42nd birthday and (thus the beginning of my 43rd year traveling around the sun), and in this manner I found myself listening to country music in this tiny bar with the two most beautiful women I know.

“Jude and I are going out tomorrow night,” Colleen had said to me the day before. I had been venting to her about how lousy I had felt my birthday had been, and she asked if I wanted to come along. It was nice of her to offer to include me in her night out with Jude; it would be a strange combination of personalities, but with a lot of recent frustration in common. I suppose that’s what brought the three of us to this little bar as much as my spoiled birthday or anything else.

Colleen had called me about 6:30 in the evening to lay out the plan. Jude was heading over to Colleen’s spacious, amazing house in a few minutes and I could join them for a pre-bar drink or I could wait and meet them at the bar sometime around 7 or 7:30. I don’t have my own car anymore, and my wife had taken hers to go to her sister’s house with our kids (on this day that was supposed to be the day we observed my birthday, I’ll remind you just this once, and with no trace of bitterness at all), so I told Colleen I’d love to be part of the pre-party, as it were, but I’d need a lift. I rung off with Colleen and found Jude in the contact list in my cell phone, and she agreed to swing by and pick me up on the way to Colleen’s. “As long as you don’t mind that I have to stop and pick up some wine,” she mentioned, and of course I didn’t mind that at all. In fact, I told her there’s a liquor store right around the corner from where I live, and I gave her quick directions, and she hung up after saying she’d finish up her makeup and be on her way in a few minutes.

I had little idea what the evening might entail, other than country music and alcohol. I am not a fan of the former, but the latter can go a ways toward making me more agreeable on the subject. And after a couple days of disappointment and conflict, I was happy to have the opportunity to get out of the house.

I pulled on my overcoat and kept an eye on the window while waiting for Jude to arrive; once or twice I opened the door and stepped onto the porch into the darkness and frigid winter air to see if there were headlights approaching from the direction I expected her to arrive from. The second time I looked, my cat Chloe, operating in stealth mode, zipped between my feet and out onto the porch and its false promises of more fun and freedom. As is my usual reaction, I rattled an old folding chair and its scary creaking noises sent my no-longer brave (or warm) white-and-grey cat racing back into the safety of the house. I did have to give Chloe points for making it past me without making a sound, but I was glad the chair trick worked; if she’d made it into the piles of junk in the eastern corner of the porch, it would take some time and effort and possibly the jaws of life to extricate her and get her back in the house. How embarrassing that would have been, if Jude had arrived as the cat was once again getting the better of me in the ten-degree cold.

About ten minutes later, Jude’s car pulled to the curb in front of where I live, and I walked down and got in. It was the first time I’d been in her car, with its futuristic barrage of bright digital readouts, and I noticed it had a standard transmission. “Of course it does,” I thought. Jude seems determined to do everything on her own, even switching gears in traffic. It was one of the things I had come to admire about her in the few short months I had known her. Also: her taste in music, her taste in movies, and the funny little dance she does when she is happy, and sometimes I think when she is sad, as well.

She navigated the short course to the neighbourhood liquor store as I described it to her, taking the shortcut behind the supermarket four doors down the street from my house and admonishing me to put on my seatbelt. Not because of safety concerns, she noted: “Although I am concerned about your safety,” she started, and I finished by correctly guessing that “The car is going to start beeping at us.” It did, but only once before we reached the liquor store, which was really within walking distance of where we started (take it from me).

Jude was dazzled by the selection of wines in the small store, which I noted to her “is the only liquor store near my house to recently have been held up by armed robbers.” I love throwing out little historical nuggets like that, probably not thinking too much about what someone new to the area might make of it. Well, it had never stopped me from visiting the store, and really, don’t you think that’s an interesting fact?

Jude asked the clerk, a plump young woman in her 20s, if the store stocked a wine known as “The Seven Deadly Zins.” “This is only my second night here,” the clerk responded from the counter, I suppose by way of apology for not in any way trying to determine the answer to my friend’s question. In the fullness of time, though, Jude chose a bottle of red, I think as a gift to Colleen for her expected hospitality this evening, and the clerk, feeling dutiful at last, asked to see both Jude’s ID and my own. “She’s a flatterer,” I noted to Jude in a stage whisper, feeling every minute of my now-42 years and thinking the clerk was just observing procedure. Jude might look like she could possibly still be under the legal drinking age, but I really don’t think I could pass for 19 or 20 under any circumstances whatsoever. Judging from the clerk’s reaction when she saw the year on my license, though (1966, the same year the original Star Trek debuted on NBC, A Desilu Production), she really did think I was younger. If she wondered what Jude (1980) and I (1966) were doing buying a bottle of wine together on this cold, upstate winter evening, she didn’t ask. “Imagine if I’d bothered to shave,” I noted to Jude, feeling giddy with my presumed youth and its concomitant piss and, presumably, vinegar.

Wine safely in hand, we got back in Jude’s car and headed in the general direction of Colleen’s house. I’d been there twice before, once as a drive-by on our lunch break when she first moved in (“Look, there’s my house!”) and once to help her carry in some bar stools she had bought for her kitchen (“You want these old ones? Some of them aren’t even broken!”). But finding it in the dark turned out to not be as easy as I had expected. So it took us two loops around Colleen’s street and a quick cell phone call and its attendant mockery (“Alan, you’ve been here twice!”) before we safely arrived. In fairness to me, it had been in the daytime when I previously had visited.

So, Colleen welcomed us into her home, a beautiful two-story house the renovation of which she is currently putting the finishing touches on. She fixed Jude and I each a White Russian and gave us the tour of the home, which she shares with her boyfriend and their four combined total children. It’s a sort of Brady Bunch On A Budget kind of arrangement – Colleen is a lovely lady with only two very lovely girls, and Steven was currently in Vermont with the two, not three, boys of his own. The tour did not include Greg’s radically groovy attic bedroom, but now that I think about it neither of the boys is actually named Greg. But the stairs do kind of seem like they were designed by architect Mike Brady, I shit you not. She also gave me a funny birthday card and a gift card to my favourite bookstore, which went a long way toward making me feel better on my long, mostly-disastrous birthday weekend.

Somewhere in this pre-bar fellowship, Colleen drinking a beer and Jude and I our White Russians (my joke about Eastern European men, based on the fact that these were really big White Russians, went nowhere; chalk it up to the fact I watched Eastern Promises earlier in the day), we began sharing our laundry list of complaints about our current work environment. It was agreed that it is, indeed, a bunch of bullshit, and there was no new business and after a short time the meeting was adjourned in favour of the bar.

We all piled into Colleen’s very large and very expensive SUV, and she told us how one of the members of the band that was playing tonight was one of her former boyfriends. It seemed more complicated than that, with various dates being bandied about, but she seemed to feel it had more or less come to an end about a decade and a half ago. Soon enough we entered the bar, which was fairly crowded, and we ordered our first round. As we received our drinks, but before we could sit, the band broke into the national anthem, noting it was something they did “at every show since 9/11.” I mentioned to Jude that “Never have my politics been so profoundly threatened so quickly after entering an establishment,” and she seemed to laugh in recognition of the rather right-wing nature of the moment, dramatically punctuated by an overweight woman at the bar looking grim and determined in her grey sweatshirt, as she held her hand over her heart during the anthem. “I’d put my hand over my heart,” I mentioned to Jude, “But there’s a drink in it,” I said, switching my gin and tonic to my right hand. The band wrapped up their heartfelt polemic and if the stern, dumpy woman with her hand on her heart noticed how much of a Communist I and my companions were, nothing was said and thankfully we were not dragged to the parking lot for disrespecting the brave American soldiers the song had been dedicated to (“And no doubt to our Muslim brothers as well,” I mentioned to my companions with only a tiny bit of liberal sarcasm and a great deal of not being terribly loud).

Shortly thereafter we took the only table that seemed mostly unoccupied (only an empty beer bottle and coat on the back of a chair indicated the table might be taken) and watched the band perform some country and southern rock-style songs. They had an accomplished fiddle player on hand, and come to find out the bottle and the coat both belonged to him, but when Colleen offered to move us somewhere else, he told her she was fine where she is, perhaps observing that, just in general, Colleen is fine and I realized in this moment (and not for the last time this evening) that there are real benefits to going out to drink with two beautiful women.

Colleen had bought the first round of drinks, having earlier promised me “A birthday drink,” and I paid for the second, and Jude the third. I was trying to nurse my gin and tonic, realizing that I was probably the most likely to be the designated driver, but somewhere in there Colleen snuck in a fourth round, and I politely sipped at my new drink while being deafened by the speaker that sat directly in front of me while we sat at our tiny table.

The music was well-performed and not all of it was as annoying as I usually find country music. Somewhere in my second drink the band did a genuinely moving love song that made me feel sad for not feeling anymore, at 42, any of the feelings the singer so movingly described about the girl in the song. I wondered if Jude and Colleen were feeling at all as maudlin as I was becoming, but soon enough we were joking around and in the fullness of time my ears wearied of the non-stop assault (the music was well-played but over-modulated) and I mentioned to my companions that a change of venue might not be out of order.

Colleen had earlier asked if Jude had ever been to Sandy’s Clam Bar, and was astonished when Jude said no. “Me either,” I noted, and Colleen was really amazed then. “I’ve successfully avoided it for 20 years,” I told her, although upon reflection it might be 22. Sandy’s is a very popular bar known for having good bands on the weekends, but something about the location (in the worst part of town) and the name (clams? Really?) had always made me leery. But the promise of ten minutes of quiet in the car while we drove from our current location to Sandy’s was too much to resist, and we pulled our coats on and headed out into the cold and the snow.

“It’s fucking snowing?” Colleen asked no one, or maybe God, and I was surprised as well, in that way you can only be surprised after an hour or two inhabiting the universe-unto-itself that is a loud bar on a weekend night. You forget that such things as weather or being able to hear normally even exist, you know?

There was some argument about what radio station to have on as we drove to our next stop: Jude wanted hip-hop, Colleen most assuredly did not. I suggested the independent new music station from Vermont, and Jude enthusiastically agreed to that, and there was some discussion as to whether The Beatles are old or not. I explained to Colleen that they will always be five years ahead of their (and our) time, while she feels they are just old and her kids can’t stand them, although to her frustration they do enjoy the same sort of hip-hop as Jude. Colleen: “Ludacris is ludicrous!” Well, yeah.

Sandy’s must have been as busy as Colleen had told us it would be, I thought to myself, as we circled the parking lot three or so times with no luck at all. Finally I pointed out spaces in an adjacent lot to Colleen, and she parked, and we walked the short distance through the insistent snow flurries to the bar. Packed, it was, and noisy as hell, but at least the noise wasn’t distorted like it had been in the other bar. Colleen led the three of us, and soon was talking with great animation to a woman she obviously was already well-acquainted with. Jude headed to the bar and for a moment I didn’t know which one to stick close to, as Colleen was staying with her acquaintance near the entrance and Jude was disappearing into the crowd. At first I tried to stay sort of equidistant to both of them, but in the end I followed Jude, figuring somebody needs to keep track of her.

She asked if I wanted a drink and I asked for a Diet Coke, which raised one of her eyebrows in that delightful Jude manner, but I knew only one of the three of us had a chance to stay sober enough to drive, and I knew that one of us was named “me.” She handed me my soda and we pried back through the crowd, Jude leading (another benefit of being with two beautiful women – I was learning a lot, here), and soon enough we were near Colleen, although not really with her. She was deep in conversation with her newfound old friend, and Jude decided variously in the next few minutes that she wanted to play Ms. Pac-Man (“the best video game ever!”) and she wanted to smoke. Smoking seemed like a good idea, cancer aside, because that meant we’d have to go outside, where it would not be as noisy. My ears were still recovering from the distorted noise at the previous bar, so I told her I would join her. The cigarette machine did not take bills, though, so she studied it with determined despair until a kindly gentleman of perhaps 50 offered her a loose cigarette in an off-hand, never-really-even-stopped-walking-by-us-as-he-did-it kind of way that just fascinated me. I’d never seen such a thing before, but I bet it happens all the time. To girls like Jude, anyway; probably not to guys like me, but, I don’t even smoke.

Then we were outside in a small crowd and Jude was smoking her borrowed cigarette and the guy who had given it to her stared talking about the band, maybe to me, maybe to no one. He mentioned that the singer used to be in another band, the name of which I recognized, and then I realized that I had worked with the singer last year and the year before on a commercial for a local charity event, when he had been with his old, and locally popular, band. I didn’t notice much about the band at all, except that they were quite good with the classic rock, and that the drummer had blue t-shirt with Captain America’s shield on it. It always comes back to comics, sooner or later.

Some young guy about Jude’s age tried awkwardly to strike up a conversation with her, but his IQ was clearly in the double digits, and he could get no traction at all. His best conversational gambit was something obvious about smoking in the snow, I think.

Eventually, and not at my behest, we went back inside. Colleen found Jude and I standing by a deer hunting video game, and also the bouncer, and asked where we had been. I responded “We were outside smoking,” feeling quite satisfyingly cosmopolitan as I did so. The band, at the far end of the bar from where we stood, launched into a Rolling Stones song, the singer doing a good imitation Mick Jagger strut, and Colleen noted at this moment both that she wanted french fries and that she wanted to dance. For a horrifying moment she mentioned the latter while looking at me, but thankfully she then asked me to watch her and Jude’s bags while they danced together. Bullet: Dodged. Dancing: Just Not My Thing.

Jude and Colleen were out of my line of sight while they danced, I am sad to report, but soon they came back and took great joy in the recorded version of “Dancing Queen” that came on after the band took a short break (“The second set is the naked set, folks, clothing optional!”), and then there was more talk of fries and we bundled up our stuff and Colleen handed me the keys and we left Sandy’s Clam Bar for good.

Colleen handed me the keys and told me I was driving, something I already knew, thank you very much, and even though I was never really drunk and had stopped drinking an hour or more ago, I wondered if one of the police cars patrolling the lot would stop me. Not so much for being drunk, as for being unfamiliar with driving Colleen’s gigantic SUV, which come to think of it, may be the same as being drunk, you know, in a legal sense. Sandy’s is often in the paper as the last known stop of sometimes prominent local citizens arrested for drunk driving, and I was fairly certain we’d at least be watched by police as we pulled out of the lot.

But no one stopped us, and with Colleen criticizing my driving (“You’re a mean drunk,” I told her, at least 75% in jest), we made our way to the only 24-hour restaurant that we could find open, Denny’s, and I ate french toast and sausage and bacon (sharing the sausage with Jude) and they both ate Moons Over My Hammy (a sandwich of some kind) and we talked of our sexual histories (Colleen has a super-hot threesome story, I have one that will make you throw up a little in your mouth; Jude’s is funny and whimsical and doesn’t actually involve sex, but rather two aging hipsters inviting her into their bedroom when she was an 18-year-old waitress serving them dinner, and again she did that neat thing with her eyebrows).

The conversation did briefly turn to our dysfunctional childhoods, and when I described my own family situation there was general agreement that I won the Fucked Up Family Sweepstakes, although we all had sad stories to share, and share them we did.

Finally, full of food and full of what had been an entertaining and most unusual evening (for me, anyway, and also for Jude, who has not gotten out much socially in recent weeks), I took my lovely companions home, driving Colleen’s SUV, and borrowing it with her permission or possibly at her insistence to get my own self home.

The next morning I awoke at 6 AM and did some writing about the evening and then called Colleen a little before 8 to see if she was up (she said she was, but I think she lied) and ready to get her car back. As I approached her house I heard a thumping inside, as if someone was racing up the stairs, and she asked if I saw her through the window. I told her I didn’t, which was true, and she said she had been wearing only a thong when she realized I had arrived, and had run up the stairs to get her robe. Of such missed moments is the stuff of my life, selah.

She asked if I thought Jude had fun last night, and I told her I thought she did. As she took me home, I told her I had fun as well, and Colleen said she did too, and it’s a little amazing to me that three people could come together in this way, on a night such as this had been, but I suppose such things do happen from time to time and in this way we feel a little more connected and a little less alone, if only for a night, despite the cold, despite the snow.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Like Every Other Night (Second Draft)

Like every other night, he awoke around midnight and needed very badly to pee. And as he also did every night, he cursed the choice he made years earlier to take the first-floor bedroom, ceding to the children the second floor, which also included the bathroom. So instead of being able to walk sleepily in the dark a few feet to piss, he had to turn on the light and climb the narrow, century-old creaky wooden staircase to make his way to the bathroom. Usually he made it without pissing himself; actually, he always made it without pissing himself, but some nights it was a close call. This was one of those nights.

A decade earlier he had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, and so urination was something that was on his mind more than it probably was for most people. High blood sugar leads to frequent urination (the least of its effects, which also include blindness, stroke, heart attack, and the one that really haunted him, amputation), and although his sugar was mostly under control these days, it could always be under better control, and he could rarely go more than 3 or 4 hours without having to go to the bathroom. Long gone were the days of his childhood, when his mother would marvel at how long he could go without peeing, sometimes an entire day or more, it seemed, in his memory.

She had been the first diabetic he knew, and looking back it made sense that she would envy his ability to not have to pee every few hours. He'd never thought about it, about her own struggle with the disease, so much harder then with far fewer treatment options and a far worse prognosis. She'd had the disease for all the time he really had her in his life, but he didn't bother to learn a thing about it until years after her death, when he learned he had inherited it from her. With help from a lifetime of shitty food, and too much of it.

He opened the bedroom door. The cat, white and gray, must have stirred when she heard him rising and turning on his bedroom light. When he opened the bedroom door and stepped into the living room, she was waiting, on her haunches, just inches from the door. Her motionless patience made her presence timeless; she could have been waiting there 15 seconds or 3 hours, it was impossible to tell. She trilled a throaty greeting to him as he passed by, then beat him to the top of the stairs when she realized where he was headed.

Stopping at the second floor landing, in the daytime too, but especially times like now, late at night, it was like entering another world from the one downstairs. Like every other night, the music coming from his daughter’s room was too loud. If it was too loud because it was too loud, or because it was Insane Clown Posse, he couldn’t say. If it had been one of the bands who he and his daughter both liked, like Death Cab for Cutie or The Beatles, perhaps he would not have quietly opened the door, reached in and turned down the volume. But it wasn’t, and he did, and then he closed the door and headed toward the bathroom. There was a time when all her musical tastes stemmed from what he listened to, but these past few months they came from YouTube and her friends at school and God only knew where else.

The light had been left on in the bathroom, again. He spent many minutes every week asking both children to shut off lights in this ancient house when they leave a room. The wiring was funky and untrustworthy -- the only light in the bathroom had to come from a lamp tied to an extension cord powered in another room, because the outlet in the bathroom could not generate enough power to see by at night. And like every other night, despite his requests that they leave it up (sometimes he really had very little time to make it to the toilet), the seat was down. The toilet paper roll was in the wrong place. Christ. He lifted the seat and put the paper where he needed it, and then he could finally do it.

It wasn’t the sweet relief of youth, when an empty bladder felt like it would never fill again, and every piss was the last you’d ever need to take. Rather, it was a ten-years-of-diabetes session that never really seemed to end, but rather just to came to an unwilling stop, like an Oscar Award winner with more to say but the orchestra drowning him out. Like every other night, of late, he wondered as he exited the bathroom if he should try one more time to empty himself, just a bit more.

But like every other night, he just wandered back downstairs, defeated, tired and old. The cat, as she always did, had disappeared somewhere between her enthusiastic gallop to the top of the stairs and his going into the bathroom alone. She had never, ever had the patience to wait for him outside the bathroom, and was always gone for the night when he came back out.

By the time he got back downstairs, he felt too awake to go back to sleep. He fired up his email, which had nothing new in it, unlike the old days when he never knew which comic book writer or movie director would make an unexpected visit in his inbox. He was older now, and less visible to the world, and they had mostly stopped calling on him, the famous and the obscure alike. So he surfed the web for a time, and then, fatigue returning for its encore performance, he started for the bedroom. As he touched the doorknob, he realized he needed to pee again. Not a lot, but enough that he would have to go back upstairs one more time before trying to fall asleep again.

Just like every other night, he climbed the stairs again, and hated them, and his bladder, and his body, which seemed to have turned on him almost entirely. Youth is an unbreakable alliance of mind and body. Age is an extended war between the two former allies, as bitter and spiteful as former lovers, and as damnably, fatally and eternally intertwined.

The End

Like Every Other Night

Like every other night, he awoke around midnight and needed very badly to pee. And as he also did every night, he cursed the choice he made years earlier to take the first-floor bedroom, ceding to the children the second floor, which also included the bathroom. So instead of being able to walk sleepily in the dark a few feet to piss, he had to turn on the light and climb the narrow, century-old creaky wooden staircase to make his way to the bathroom. Usually he made it without pissing himself; actually, he always made it without pissing himself, but some nights it was a close call. This was one of those nights.

A decade earlier he had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, and so urination was something that was on his mind more than it probably was for most people. High blood sugar leads to frequent urination (the least of its effects, which also include blindness, stroke, heart attack, and the one that really haunted him, amputation), and although his sugar was mostly under control these days, it could always be under better control, and he could rarely go more than 3 or 4 hours without having to go to the bathroom. Long gone were the days of his childhood, when his mother would marvel at how long he could go without peeing, sometimes an entire day or more, it seemed, in his memory.

The cat, white and gray, must have stirred when she heard him rising and turning on his bedroom light. When he opened the bedroom door and stepped into the living room, she was waiting, on her haunches, just inches from the door. Her motionless patience made her presence timeless; she could have been waiting there 15 seconds or 3 hours, it was impossible to tell. She trilled a throaty greeting to him as he passed by, then beat him to the top of the stairs when she realized where he was headed.

Like every other night, the music coming from his daughter’s room was too loud. If it was too loud because it was too loud, or because it was Insane Clown Posse, he couldn’t say. If it had been one of the bands who he and his daughter both liked, like Death Cab for Cutie or The Beatles, perhaps he would not have quietly opened the door, reached in and turned down the volume. But it wasn’t, and he did, and then he closed the door and headed toward the bathroom.

And so finally he got relief; it wasn’t the sweet relief of youth, when an empty bladder felt like it would never fill again, and every piss was the last you’d ever need to take. Rather, it was a ten-years-of-diabetes session that never really seemed to end, but rather just to came to an unwilling stop, like an Oscar Award winner with more to say but the orchestra drowning him out. Like every other night, of late, he wondered as he exited the bathroom if he should try one more time to empty himself, just a bit more.

But like every other night, he just wandered back downstairs, defeated, tired and old.

The End

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Summer's End

"Portentous" is the only word that seems to suit the slate-gray colour of the skies over upstate New York today. There's a chill in the air and it looks like it very badly wants to snow, but it's not quite time. Soon it will be, and the snow will come.

Fall is my favourite time of year, and yet today's unquestionable autumnal pall drove me into a torpid depression. It was close to four in the afternoon before I could rouse myself into any sort of meaningful action at all, even if it was only to drag my ass over the mountain to the comic shop to pick up my weekly haul, plus an action figure meant for my son's 12th birthday next month. It's something he'll really like. I'd tell you what it is, but he's getting pretty savvy with the internet these days. Nothing is the same anymore, now that everyone in my house except the cat has their own Gmail account.

Leaving the comic shop, I drove south instead of returning home over the mountain. In Saratoga Springs, I stopped in to Borders and bought the single copy they had in stock of Best American Comics 2007 edited by Chris Ware. Comic book artist Matt Smith was working; you may remember him as a former Mike Mignola collaborator, and artist of a Nightcrawler miniseries, an Avengers Timeslip one-shot that is fabulously drawn, and other comics. We chatted briefly once when he checked me out as I was buying some graphic novel or other; he seems very pleasant, and is also pretty tall.

I really, really wanted to wander around Saratoga Springs after I left Borders, but that gray, unrelenting sky pushed down on me and made me long for the familiar and comfortable confines of home. There was much I wanted to do today, and for a change in recent weeks, I felt well enough to do at least some of it, but maybe it's my mood, or the weather, or the time of year, that drove me back toward home. Every previously-bustling ice cream joint and hot dog stand I saw on the way has been closed up, with signs thanking patrons for a great summer and promising a return next spring. Summer's end has come.

I wonder, not for the first year, how many more summers I will see.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

A Comfortable Distance

Taking the “I” Out of Intimacy

Yesterday, an acquaintance of mine told me about some serious difficulties she had been having. She clearly been through hell in the past month or so, but we’ve always talked frankly with each other, and I had known something was wrong, so it was no surprise that she finally opened up to me about her problems.

This is someone I like a great deal, although I don’t know if we’re “friends.” I do know that I have asked her in the past to feel free to call me if she felt she was having trouble – and I was sincere in my offer to be a shoulder to cry on, scream into or punch if needed. As she was telling me yesterday what had gone on in her life in recent weeks, I tried to summon whatever compassion is within me, but I know it wasn’t enough. My final gesture as I left her was to pat her on the hand, and she placed her other hand over mine, momentarily. I wondered, as I always do, how long to maintain the contact. I’m sure it wasn’t long enough. I am not good at connecting with people on an intimate level – in fact, I think I flee from intimacy.

I didn’t always want to avoid intimacy, but yesterday’s interlude reminded me of a time four or five years ago when a woman I previously worked with applied for a job at my then-current place of employment. I hadn’t seen her in a year or two, and despite the fact that we had worked very closely together, and that I considered her a friend, and had even gone to the movies with her one night (to see Man on the Moon, the Andy Kaufman story), when I ran into her in the reception area as she was coming in to interview for a job opening I had recommended her for, I felt extremely awkward and managed the encounter so badly that she must have wondered what the hell was wrong with me. She came toward me and hugged me in a manner that said “Of course I’m going to hug you!” The unspoken question that seemed to me to hang in the air was, “Why didn’t you hug me?!?”

I don’t seem to be a hugger. My default gesture of choice in expressing physical affection with my own children is one of those handshakes where you slam the flat of your fists into each other, you know, the “power me up!” handshake. Don’t get me wrong, I always hug my kids if they initiate the hug, but I guess my problem is that I only ever really know when someone wants or expects to be hugged after I have failed to do so in a timely manner.

The worst, for me, is the casual handshake with strangers. My job brings me into contact with people I don’t know on an almost-daily basis, and invariably they want to shake hands. I try to manage this unpleasantness by engaging in conversation from eight or ten feet away, and thereafter trying to maintain a distance of three or four feet in any case, but this is not always possible. As a result, I have been subjected to every type of handshake there is – limp, aggressive, painful, and worst of all, damp. All these varieties of handshake are remedied with one single solution – the moment the shaker is out of sight, I race to the bathroom to wash off their germs. It’s not meant as a personal criticism in any way; I’m sure many of the people I have sped to the washroom to remove all traces of are actually quite clean. I just can’t help myself.

There are times, then, when I want absolutely nothing at all of intimacy – shaking hands with strangers primary among them. Other times, I welcome it, as long as it is on the other person’s terms, such as hugs from my children. The most confusing times are times like when my acquaintance was telling me about her suicide attempt, or when my friend was applying for a job at my place of work – I know intimacy is expected, if not mandatory – but I just don’t know the rules. I feel like a stranger in a strange land in those moments, and the awkwardness, guilt and shame they bring up in me always linger on for some time; in some cases, years.

All this is made much more difficult by virtue of the fact that I seem to be someone that is seen by those around him as someone to be confided in. My office at work is, sometimes multiple times in one day, frequently turned into a venting zone. Some outraged or upset or offended co-worker will step into my narrow workspace, glance into the hall and then shut the door and begin telling me their secrets. How they’ve been wronged by management or a co-worker; how they must find a new job; how they hate everyone in the building but me. Often I wish I was not exempt from that list, because then I would not have to have those conversations – and their implied intimacy – that I do not want to have.

My most difficult issues with intimacy at the moment revolve around my relationship with my wife, someone who certainly would seem to be entitled to as much intimacy as I can muster. The problem is, I really can’t muster much these days. Our work schedules put us at vastly different sleep schedules, and often I see her for 20 minutes or less per day during the week. On weekends she usually wants to sleep to make up for her odd hours during the workweek, and in the hours she is wide awake, I usually either want to read, or am beginning to get ready for bed myself.

A few years ago our schedules were more simpatico than they are now, and we took weekly daytrips to this or that big city within a one- to three-hour drive of our town. We’d enjoy nice meals in restaurants, long strolls through museums, movies, shopping, whatever the day brought to us. Some changes to our jobs, income and schedules, and now, as I say, we’re together maybe a total of ten hours a week total. And frankly, those ten hours are not what one might call quality time by any stretch of the imagination.

I’m sure it’s my fault, as I am regularly reminded that it surely must be. After 15 years together I can understand why she would feel she should be getting more out of our marriage. On some level, I sympathize and even wish she were enjoying the level of intimacy I guess we once shared. But at some point, am I not entitled to any say at all in how our time together plays out? Must I perform some farce of closeness just to keep the peace? Can’t we just enjoy our naps in separate rooms and perhaps meet in the living room for a quick bite at lunchtime? No, clearly, this is not enough…for her.

My inability to feel close to anyone anymore is a problem; although I don’t necessarily wish to be as freely intimate and up-close as my wife might like, I do wish that I could better read and respond to intimacy overtures from people I care about. Because I do care, as hard as that might be to believe. I care, but I don’t seem to be able to manage that caring as well as I used to, not that I was ever any kind of compassion virtuoso. I feel deficient in my relationships with most of the people I care about, but distance seems to me to be safer and more comfortable for me than closeness. I want always to reserve the right to turn away, close down, or immerse myself in my own world, away from the pain, sadness or loneliness of those around me. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it is something I acknowledge, for whatever that is worth. Perhaps, as Bender once said on Futurama, “I hate the people who love me, and they hate me!” Or maybe, as Groucho Marx once observed, I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.

A Letter to Dan

41 Talking to 19

On August 19th, 2007 I wrote this farewell letter to a 19 year old co-worker who was leaving the radio station to continue his college education and move on to his second job in radio. There was a lot I wanted to tell him to sum up the two years or so we worked together and my hopes for his career.

Dear Dan,

I just wanted to say it’s been a genuine pleasure to work with you, and I wish you nothing but great success in the future.

You’ve shown a great capacity to learn in your time here, as well, of course, as a tendency to screw up. But at least you do the latter endearingly, and most importantly, you seem to learn from your mistakes. Most people never understand that it’s more important to learn from your errors than not to make them in the first place. If nothing else, it makes you a more interesting person.

You’re a great guy and I believe you have a good radio career ahead of you, if you keep your eyes and ears open, absorb as much knowledge as you can every moment of every day, and don’t ever think that you know all the answers. I’ve been doing this 22 years, and it’s only in the past three or four years that I’ve felt I have any idea at all how things work, and more importantly why they work the way they do, so if you’ve ever thought I knew what the hell I was talking about, please remember it took me two decades to get to that point.

I want to leave you with some advice, both because you always seem to appreciate it (or are an even better bullshit artist than I think you are), and because I think you could use some. So for what it’s worth, here’s what I think.

1. Always do the very best job you can at whatever job you agree to take on.

2. Always remember that no company will ever put your best interests ahead of its own. Watch out for yourself, no one else will.

3. Always remember it’s in your best interest to do your best, but don’t let anyone take advantage of you. Your time, your skills, and your energy are uniquely yours and are of great value. Demand that that value be recognized, always.

4. Know when to say no. If you always say yes, no one will respect you or your work.

5. Pick your battles wisely. Before saying yes or no to any task, weigh the plusses and minuses to you, to the company. Know what all parties involved are getting out of any situation, and if you’re getting the least of anyone involved, and yet not doing the least amount of work, demand a more reasonable arrangement.

6. Be careful about listeners. We become on-air personalities in large part because we want to be loved, but the love offered by the average adoring fan comes with too high a cost. If they meet you because you are in radio, chances are it’s radio they’re truly attracted to, not you.

7. Do not, under any circumstances, ever let anyone in a position of authority over you bully you into doing something you think is wrong, unethical or illegal. Call bullshit on this every time.

8. When you’re at work, be at work. Your personal life and your personal time are for your off-hours. A lot of young people, including yourself, seem to blur the lines. Your work and personal time will both be more rewarding and manageable if you draw strict lines and observe them faithfully. This is one you really need to work on, for the good of your career.

9. On the air, be truly interesting, but be yourself. Find things that truly interest you to talk about, and create a dialogue with your listeners. Once you do that, you will have them hooked for your entire career. Don’t fall into the easy trap of empty, vapid, pre-fab show prep material.

10. Keep a journal. One day you’ll look back and want to recall all the details of how you got wherever you end up. Keeping a journal is a love letter to your own life, and a valuable document for those that love you, and those that will in the future.

11. Your friends at work are not your friends. Your friends are the people that come pick you up at 2 in the morning because your car broke down, or who listen to you cry over a broken romance at 4 o’clock on Sunday morning. Cultivate pals and allies at work, but remember that very, very few of them will ever truly become friends. Cherish the ones that do.

12. Perhaps the best advice I could give you or anyone in this business or any other -- understand fully the underlying principles of anything you endeavor to do. Don’t just take my word, or Casey’s word, or Dan O’Day’s word, or anyone’s word, for anything. If you understand why things happen the way they do, it will give you insight and confidence that faking it never will. Think your way through any challenge or problem, and only ask for help if you truly cannot come up with a working solution on your own. It’s no shame to ask for help, but when you do, be sure you actually need it, or you’ll be seen as lazy or stupid. And you are neither.

Like I said, Dan, it’s been a great pleasure both working with you and watching you grow into a job that at this point I kind of think you were born to do. Few people succeed in radio unless they really have an inborn aptitude for it, and a stubborn ability to disregard and overcome all the assholes, creeps, crooks and morons they must work with every goddamned day; very few people can actually do that over the long haul. When facing people like that, remember what I told you long ago: Smile, agree to what they want, and then do the right thing after they walk away thinking they won.

Your first job has taught you only the slightest fraction about what it is to have a career in radio, Dan. But even the slightest fraction is a step in the right direction. This is a business only worth working in if you truly understand what it will and won’t do for you, and if you are prepared to be flexible, reliable, and always loyal first to yourself. When you find jobs and bosses and co-workers worthy of your talents and energy, give them your all. I think you did that here, and I’m proud of how far you’ve come in the time you’ve been here. Best of luck always, and keep in touch.


Monday, August 6, 2007

Completely at Ease: An Interview with James Howard Kunstler

Conducted by Alan David Doane.


On August 2nd, 2007 author James Howard Kunstler sat down with me for what turned out to be a wide-ranging discussion about his career, the state of the nation and the world, and his upcoming novel, World Made By Hand.

I first interviewed Jim Kunstler on the radio back in the 1990s, when the issue of suburban sprawl first came to my attention. The last time I interviewed him before this session was in 2000, and one doesn’t have to reflect long to realize how very much the world has changed since then. I believe Kunstler’s non-fiction books The Geography of Nowhere, Home From Nowhere, The City in Mind and The Long Emergency are groundbreaking works of crucial importance; he explains how we got where we are and where we’re likely headed in the very near future in eloquent, easy-to-understand and often very funny language. All the more tragic, then, that so many people from the highest levels of government to the man and woman on the (badly-designed) street are not getting the message.

This is a long interview, but it’s filled with important information that will directly affect your life and the life of everyone you know, and I hope you’ll take the time to read it fully, and most importantly, accept nothing on faith. Research the issues of peak oil and the sustainability of the American way of life, and you’ll very likely come to believe as I do, as Kunstler does, that things are about to change in profound and unavoidable ways. It’s the manner in which mankind deals with these changes that will define us for the remainer of the 21st century and beyond, but as you’ll read, it’s not all necessarily as apocalyptic as one might first assume.

The most rewarding moment in this interview, for me, came toward the end when Jim was describing the characters and setting of his forthcoming novel, World Made By Hand (Atlantic Monthly Press, coming in March of 2008). After all Kunstler has covered as a journalist and author, after all the bleak but credible scenarios he describes, I was delighted to see that he can still get excited about the act of writing. There was a positive twinkle in his eye as he told me how the new novel came together, and when he talked about how rewarding his overall writing career has been, I was very happy to hear that a writer whose work has meant so much to me, has felt himself so satisfied with the path of his career – “Completely at ease,” as he says. It was a privilege to talk to him for the hour we spent together, and I can’t thank him enough for taking the time to share his opinions, memories and observations with me.

Note: An audio MP3 (14MB) of this interview is available for download, as is a printable PDF file (351KB, 17 pages).

Alan David Doane: Could you tell us how you got into journalism?

James Howard Kunstler: I was a theatre major at a SUNY [State University of New York] four-year college, Brockport, back in the 1960s in the Age of Aquarius. My first job out of college was directing a play in summer stock, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare. And that was my last job in the theatre [laughs]. After that, I started writing for the hippie newspapers in Boston in the early ‘70s. From there I had a series of jobs, eventually at the Capital Newspapers in Albany [New York], and then from there I got a job at Rolling Stone magazine, which was then in San Francisco. And I figured that was about as far as I was going to get in journalism, so I dropped out in the late ‘70s to write books.

For the next fifteen years or so, I wrote eight novels and they were all published by various mainstream publishers. I didn’t get rich off of them, but I made enough money to pay the light bill. I would finish one on Friday and start another one on Monday, because that’s really how it was. I get a lot of letters from wanna-be writers, young people who want to become writers, probably the main thing they don’t understand is that perseverance counts for more than talent in this racket. If you can’t hang in there through all the discouragement and disappointments – because you’re writing in a vacuum, you’re producing a product that no one’s asked for, and there’s a lot of disappointment and failure involved that you have to get through. So you have to slog your way through it.

Around 1988 or so, I was getting a little burned out writing novels that weren’t making me rich, so I kind of segued back into journalism, and I started writing for The New York Times Magazine, a series of articles about development in America, particularly the northeast. And that led to a book proposal about the suburban predicament and why we had sort of destroyed the American landscape. And that book turned out to be The Geography of Nowhere. It led to several other books on the subject [Home from Nowhere, The City in Mind and The Long Emergency], and eventually to the next level for me, which was my previous book, The Long Emergency. Which is really more about the global energy predicament and its implications for American life than it is about suburbia per se.

One of the things that I was struck by in re-reading The Geography of Nowhere, and you kind of hinted at this, you sort of have had two major book-writing careers, as a fiction author and then these other – [you’re] almost like two separate authors in a way.

It was an interesting thing that happened to me, and I guess I entered the biz at a strange time, when literature per se was becoming less important, especially “The Novel,” as conceived in the previous era of Norman Mailer, and Updike and Philip Roth and all those guys, that was the previous generation. My generation sort of became over-supplied with that at a time when there was also an over-supply of movies and videos and DVDs and things to distract people.

The thing that struck me with The Geography of Nowhere, it almost seems at this point, and I’ll see if you agree, that it almost seems quaint in its optimism for the future. Even though it talks about, “We need to do this, we need to do that,” now that we’ve had a decade or more of Peak Oil predictions and seeing where things are going with the housing market, it seems like The Geography of Nowhere is almost an optimistic book in comparison to where we are today.

Well, yeah. I wrote about the oil predicament in the final chapters of The Geography of Nowhere, which was published in ’93. An interesting thing happened in the mid-‘90s, a whole cohort of petroleum geologists started retiring out of the major oil companies. And as they did this, they started publishing their own personal views after they had secured their pensions and gotten their retirement in order. And these guys started publishing their views about where the oil industry was really headed, and that really resulted in a shock of recognition for people who were paying attention to these issues.

Now the unfortunate thing is that neither the public nor the mainstream media nor the political sector is paying much attention to the oil story. But it’s a huge, huge problem that we face. It’s going to change everything about how we live. When I wrote The Geography of Nowhere, even back then I regarded the suburban situation as being really tragic. I wasn’t optimistic about it. The only thing I was optimistic about was, I had become associated with this group of people called The New Urbanists. And they offered what I thought was a pretty good remedy for the suburban problem. Which would have been, or which has been a return to traditional principles of urban design, town planning, et cetera.

The trouble is that the energy predicament is now presenting itself so rapidly and implacably that I don’t really think that we’re going to have an easy transition. I think that the longer that we put off making the necessary adjustments, the more disorderly and harsh this transition is going to be.

That’s something that I wanted to ask you about; you write in The Geography of Nowhere about the “City Beautiful” movement which was, correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like, in terms of the overall national mindset of how things should work, in a town, in a city, that that was probably the last time the country was headed in a sustainable direction.

Well, we were a very different country. And for the benefit of the people who don’t know what the City Beautiful movement was, it occurred at the turn of the previous century, in about a 25-year period from about 1890 to 1915, ’20. And it really was an extraordinary period in which we came to the recognition that we were becoming a world power and that we needed to have cities that were worthy of our greatness. And so you had this tremendous coalition of business leaders, municipal leaders, architects, planners, really all working together on the same page to produce the greatest things that we ever built in our cities. The great civic centers, the great museums and libraries, the great public buildings, all that stuff, the best of it, dates from that period.

We’re a very different country now, particularly in the post World War II period, where all kinds of things have changed, and most particularly we’ve had about 90 years of imposing the automobile over the terrain of North America with really disastrous results. And it can be stated pretty succinctly, that we have produced a living arrangement that has no future. And that’s a really big problem.

You have been a strong critic of the over-reliance on automobiles in the U.S., basically a lot of the problems that you see coming in the near future are a result of the over-reliance on the automobile. Can you tell me when you first started to see the signs were not pointing to, as you call it, a permanent “happy motoring era,” that this was the problem. What tipped you off?

It wasn’t really hard to understand; I was a young newspaper reporter during the first OPEC oil embargo in 1973, and interestingly enough in a newspaper office building that had just been relocated from downtown Albany [New York], to the suburban wasteland of Wolf Road [in Colonie, a suburb of Albany]. You could see what happened when the U.S. got into trouble with oil for a relatively short period of time. And unfortunately it was a short crisis, and people got over it. Moreover, there were things that happened afterwards that prompted us to think that it was an aberration. Namely, the last really great oil discoveries of the world, in the north slope of Alaska and the North Sea between England and Norway. These two great oil areas came into production in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, and they sort of took the pressure off of the Western world and removed the leverage from OPEC for a while.

Is it fair to say that gave a kind of false hope to the idea that [cheap oil] would never end?

Absolutely correct; yeah, that’s quite true. It really saved the West’s rear-end for about 15 years. And oil prices went down steadily from the mid-‘80s into the 21st century, until they were roughly ten dollars a barrel before 2001. So, the American people in particular developed the false reality that we didn’t have an oil problem, that we didn’t have an energy problem, and that we could just continue behaving the way we did. And ironically, or paradoxically, the worst part, the most emphatic part of the suburban build-out happened in those years, since the mid-‘80s when we built so much car-dependent stuff. It’s going to be such a liability for us, we have no idea.

We saw the price of a barrel of crude oil go up to record highs just this week...

Well, just yesterday it actually crossed into a frontier that it hasn’t been in, above $78.50. It retreated about a dollar late in trading, but the trend upward into the upper 70s towards $80.00 a barrel is now pretty firm.

And there really is no immediate hope that this situation is ever going to get better.

This is an implacable problem. There’s a new kind of wrinkle on the oil situation, and maybe a new interpretation that will help people understand it. And it has to do with this idea: That we’re discovering now that the exporting rates from the countries that sell us oil and sell oil to the rest of the developed world, the U.S., Europe, Japan, China and increasingly India, that the countries that export oil, their exports are declining at an even steeper rate than their production is declining. So, if Saudi Arabia’s production is down four percent this year, whatever it is, their export levels are going down at a steeper level. And the same is true for all the other major exporting nations.

So what you’re seeing here is a trend in which we’re going to get into trouble much sooner than people thought, and not sheerly over depletion but over simply the market availability. Now the poster child for this, and this is very important, the poster boy for this is Mexico. Mexico’s oil production, 60 percent of it is composed of one single oil field, the second largest field ever discovered in the history of the oil industry, called the Cantarell Oil Field in the Gulf of Mexico. It was discovered in the last 25 years and produced with the latest and greatest technology, which had the effect of only draining it more efficiently. So when people say “Don’t worry, we have new technology coming along,” this is one of the problems with it.

The Cantarell Oil Field of Mexico is now depleting at a minimum rate of about 15 percent a year. Meaning within about five or six years, it’s out. And long before that, they’re going to stop sending oil to the United States. Now, Mexico is America’s third leading source of oil imports. And what this means is we’re going to lose our third leading import supplier of oil within the next two or three years. This is going to have not only a tremendous effect on our ability to get around and go through our daily activities, but it is also going to create a tremendous amount of turmoil and hardship in Mexico; because the Mexican national government depends for nearly half of its revenue from the Mexican national oil industry, which is now entering a state of collapse. So as that occurs, we’re going to see probably a great deal of disorder down in Mexico. And if you think we have problems now with immigration, and with managing the border, I think the probability is that they’re only going to get worse.

When that comes to pass, they’re going to be looking to get the hell out of Dodge.

The last time there was a big problem in Mexico was this long, drawn-out revolution that occurred between about 1913 and 1940, and that was the era of Zapata, and all that tremendous amount of revolutionary activity. And back then, one-quarter of the Mexican population left the country. But back then the population of Mexico was 20 million. Now it’s over 100 million.

That’s a scary thought.

It is a scary thought, and it’s among a whole menu of thoughts that we’re not willing to even think about in the public discussion of these things.

If this is happening on a two- to three-year time scale as you say, wouldn’t you think that the people that are running for president now would be talking about it and trying to present some sort of solution, or at least a band-aid, and yet that’s the last thing that they’re talking about.

Well, I’m fond of saying that I’m allergic to conspiracy theories. And I am. People send me these 9/11 conspiracy emails and I pretty much disregard all that stuff. And I don’t think there’s a conspiracy among our leadership to keep us in the dark or anything, I think it’s simply can be explained truly as cognitive dissonance, which is a fancy way of saying “static in our collective imagination,” an inability to form a consensus about what’s important, and about what needs to be addressed. And I think that the more trouble that we face and get into and the scarier that these problems are, actually, the more likelihood there is that the cognitive dissonance will increase. And that’s one of the dangers that I think we face.

Let me give you an example. There is one particular project that is just absolutely imperative right now in this country. And that is rebuilding the American passenger railroad system; because we’re going to face enormous problems with transportation between our cities, of both people and of goods. And the trucking industry is going to get in enormous trouble, the commercial airline industries are going to be in big, big trouble, if they survive at all. You know, people are going to need a way to get around.

Now, look. We had a railroad system that was once the envy of the world. We now have a railroad system that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of. The infrastructure for rebuilding it is lying out there rusting in the rain, it doesn’t require the reinvention of anything, we know how to do this kind of technology. It could run on all different kinds of energy, but would do best if it ran on electricity, because it’s the most efficient and you can get electricity from a lot of different things. It would put scores of thousands of people to work at jobs at every level, from labor to management.

There’s another thing about it that’s terribly important. This country needs a project that can help build our – that can encourage us, that can give us some sense of accomplishment. That can build our confidence. It’s terribly important, because we’re going to be facing a larger set of problems that are going to be very discouraging. We need a big national project that will boost our confidence, and also do something for us. And so rebuilding the American railroad system couldn’t be more important.

Now the thing is, are any of the candidates even talking about this, in either party at any level of the political spectrum? And the answer is “no.” So you have to ask yourself, why is that? Again, I don’t think it’s a conspiracy, I think it’s sheer, obdurate cluelessness.

And there is a history in this country, it’s not hard to look back and see previous precedents of great, nationwide projects, from the WPA...

Well, the City Beautiful movement, which you mentioned, which was not a government sponsored project, it was a consensus among the private world, the government world, everybody agreed that it was necessary to make American cities great. And now it’s necessary to retrofit the United States for an energy-scarcer world, and we’re not even beginning to think about it. And I think there’s an explanation for that, too.

Let me ask you, because my next question involves the psychology – you’ve talked a lot [in your writing] about “the psychology of previous investment,” of the fact that as a nation we’re so wrapped up in our current status quo – as Vice President Cheney has said, “The American way of life is non-negotiable.” And yet, there’s no easily obvious replacement for cheap oil.

Yeah, there isn’t. And much of the thinking and talking that is now going on about alternative fuels, is delusional; for example, the ethanol situation. As a Pennsylvania farmer put it to me last winter, “We’re going to take the last six inches of Midwestern topsoil and burn it in our gas tanks.” We may even starve if we pursue this thing far enough. It’ll definitely be a contest between people eating and automobiles, filling their gas tanks. But to get back to your point, you mention “the psychology of previous investment,” and I think this is a very important point. One of the reasons we’re having such a poor discussion about these problems is because we’ve put so much of our national wealth – and even our spirit – into this American Dream living arrangement of car dependency and national chain retail and all of the accessories and furnishings of it, that we can’t imagine letting go of it, or reforming it, or changing it.

It’s almost like the problem is too big for the average person to wrap their brain around, so they just pretend it isn’t there.

Yes, that’s true, and as a practical matter, most Americans are so deeply invested in the furnishings of the suburban living arrangement, you know, most Americans who own their own homes, that’s where most of their wealth is located, in the ownership of a suburban house. And if you’re living 28 miles outside of Denver, or Minneapolis, or if you’re living 17 miles outside of Glens Falls, it’s going to be very hard for you to imagine living differently.

The mall is going to be very far away when gas is either ten dollars a gallon, or unavailable altogether.

Everything’s going to be far away. We’re simply not going to be able to get around. And other things are going to be happening at the same time. It’s not as though just one thing will be changing. A lot of people write to me and say “Oh, won’t we just be telecommuting from our houses?” Well, one of the things that will be happening is that the American economy will be hemorrhaging jobs. A lot of positions and vocations and professions are going to be decimated. And so you’ll have people sitting in their McHouses 28 miles outside of Dallas, twiddling their thumbs, wondering how they’re going to feed their families. And wondering when the repo man is going to knock on their door, because that’s a whole other issue, which is something that’s happening simultaneously with the ramping up of the permanent energy crisis, is that the housing bubble is crashing, or deflating.

A lot of what’s going on in the United States right now is based on wishing. Not on thinking, but on wishing. And there’s a tremendous wish out there that the housing collapse wouldn’t be so. That it’s not happening. That maybe it’ll turn around. And the builders are certainly sitting out there, hoping that it’ll turn around and that they’ll get their production back up again, but I think what you’re going to see is this: This is truly the end of the cycle. The production home builders are not coming back. They’re going to go down, for good. Indeed, the entire suburban development pattern is over. And we’re going to have to occupy the terrain of North America much differently than we have in the last 70 years. And it’s going to be an enormous trauma for us to even process the need to do this, and the resistance will be huge. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that we’ll see an enormous political campaign to prop up the entitlements of the suburban living arrangement long after it is self-evident that it can’t be sustained. And that in itself will be an exercise in futility that may waste many of our remaining national resources, including our national capital.

Whatever capital remains in our economic system, that is money, to be invested, when the housing crash bubbles out and all of the things associated with it implode, we’re going to need money to rebuild the railroad system, we’re going to need money to help people move from parts of the country that are no longer going to be very useful to live in, to other parts. I worry very much that this process is not going to be very orderly.

You talk about the problem of people counting on wishes rather than solid realities, and something that you talk about is the idea that technology will somehow rescue us from a lack of energy, that energy somehow equals technology.

Yeah, this is one of the reigning delusions of the moment, that technology and energy are the same, that they’re interchangeable, and that if you run out of one, you just substitute the other. And nothing could be further from the truth. And we’re going to get into tremendous trouble in believing this. You can see the origin of this, it comes from a century of having one really snazzy technological achievement after another, and there have been, obviously, a whole lot of them, and things that really have given us a lot of pleasure and a lot of convenience; everything from cell phones to DVDs to cars that are really reliable, et cetera. So these things have been very magical, and it’s given the public the idea that there’s an endless supply of magic, and that it’s called technology. And that if you run into a problem with anything else, you just plug in the magic technology.

I actually had this experience when I gave a talk at the Google Corporation in Silicon Valley, and I began to understand where this comes from, too, by the way, part of this delusional thinking. Because when I finished my talk, the Google people in the audience by the way were all executives and higher-up engineers and stuff, and a lot of these people were young people under 30 who had become millionaires working for Google because they got in on the ground floor four or five years ago, and they grew with the company and got stock options, so, here they are millionaires at 28. Anyway, I gave my talk, and we had comments and questions. And there were no questions, just comments. And the comment was all the same. One after another these people, in one way or another, got up and said “Like, dude, we’ve got technology.” Meaning, “you’re a jerk.”

And what I began to realize was that this is a form of grandiose thinking, delusional grandiose thinking coming from people who have been so personally successful for moving little pixels around the screen with a mouse, that they think that this is the sovereign remedy for all the problems of the world. And the scary thing about it is that these are among the most intelligent, well-educated people in America, working at the highest level of American technological enterprise. And they don’t know the difference, how do you expect Joe Sixpack to know the difference? So, this is a matter of leadership. We’re getting poor leadership not just from the political sector but from the business sector, which is giving people the mistaken idea that if you run out of energy, you just plug in technology, and it’s a very tragic belief.

What’s the place, if any, that you see for alternative fuels? You talked a little bit about ethanol, a lot of people are buying hybrid cars, what do you see as the role of [alternative fuel sources]?

Well, this is actually an interesting point, because it’s the essence of the problem. And there are two parts of it. Part one is this: No combination of alternative fuels or systems for using them is going to allow us to keep on running America the way we’ve been running it. We are not going to run Wal-Mart, Walt Disney World and the Interstate Highway System on any combination of wind, solar, biodiesel, ethanol, used french fry potato oil, tar sand byproducts, or anything that we know of right now. Including nuclear. We’re going to have to make other arrangements for all the major activities of life. All the complex systems that we depend on, including agriculture, the way we produce our food, the way we inhabit the terrain, the way we do commerce and trade, the way we do education. All these major systems are going to have to change pretty severely.

Now, the real key to this is something that you said, which was, you asked me about the hybrid cars, and this is the big problem. We’ve got to talk about something besides how we’re going to run the cars. We’re going to have to get over this. We’re going to have to overcome this obsession with the cars. Because, any way you cut it, we’re going to be driving fewer miles, in fewer vehicles, fewer times, every day. The car is going to be a diminished presence in our life. And the important thing to focus on is not just how we’re going to run the cars, it’s how we’re going to get the other things in our life together. How we’re going to get a railroad system together, so people don’t have to drive from Plattsburgh to Syracuse. How we’re going to fix the agriculture system so we’re not dependent on the 3,000-mile Caesar salad, or the fruits and vegetables that are coming from New Zealand and South America. We’re going to have to grow more of our food closer to home. How are we going to do that?

For the entirety of the 20th century, mankind found a way to harness fossil fuel; that was like an enormous gift from the world, but it never occurred to anybody that there would come a day when it would just run out. And we don’t even need to worry about when it runs out, because it’s going to get to the point where it’s going to cost more than a barrel of oil to take a barrel of oil out of the earth.

To get the remaining oil, yeah. Whatever that is.

So it’s not running completely out of oil [that’s the issue]...

Exactly. People misunderstand this. It’s not about running out of oil, it’s how the complex systems that we depend on start to wobble and falter and fail, once you get over the peak production point and start sliding down the slippery slope of depletion.

And it’s important to note, from all apparent evidence, we are either at that point now or will be in – a year or two?

You know, I would accept the argument that we’re at that point, because the only place in the world right now where there’s really any question of whether they are at peak production has been Saudi Arabia.

And do we have any reason to believe that we would be getting accurate forecasts from the Saudi Arabians?

No, the answer is implicit in your question, because the Saudi Arabian oil company Aramco is a nationalized oil company, and they basically treat their production information as state secrets. Much of their production and reserve information, meaning how much oil they have left in the ground, they lie a lot about what their reserves are. We do know how much oil has been coming out of there. Because once it’s loaded onto the tankers, and it gets to its destinations, we know we can add up the number of barrels that have come out of Saudi Arabia. And one thing we know, is that they seem to have peaked in 2006 at about 9.6 million barrels a day in production. They are now at about 8.4 million barrels a day, so their production is down pretty steeply.

Earlier I said four percent, it’s more like ten percent, year over year, from 2006. With the price of oil ramping up remorselessly, you’d think that they would have every incentive for producing more, and yet they’re not. Now, there are technical reasons for us to believe that they’re having problems with production, and they have to do with several things. One is that 60 percent of their oil production is dependent on the largest ever found, the Gwar Oil Field; the Cantarell field in Mexico is number two, Gwar is number one. It’s fifty years old, meaning it’s a very old oil field. It’s been in production for a long time. Fifty years of production is generally way over the point where oil fields tend to peak. They tend to peak at about 30 to 40 years. So there’s that. There’s the fact that they’re using increasingly tremendous amounts of salt water injection to push the oil out of the ground, and more and more, what they’re getting is sort of oil-tinted seawater. Increasingly they’re getting more water and less oil.

And so, we have a lot of reasons to believe that the Saudis are actually pooping out, and if they’re out, then there’s no question that the world has peaked. What happens next is, what happens on the slippery slope of depletion? And what we’re beginning to see is, the oil markets themselves are among the complex systems that start to wobble. And we’re seeing that in the export picture. Because there will still be a lot of oil produced, but, it may not get to the people who want it, some of the people who want it, like us, perhaps the people in Europe. There’ll certainly be a tug-of-war between the people in Asia and the people in Europe and North America. And we don’t know how that’s going to resolve or play out.

It’s not likely to be a civil dispute, I would think.

Well, no, I’m not saying we’re going to go to war with China, India and Japan…

But saying something like “The American way of life is non-negotiable,” that doesn’t really indicate that diplomacy is the first tack.

Well, Dick Cheney, yeah, it was kind of an obtuse statement, although, and I didn’t vote for Dick Cheney, but in the defense of that utterance, we have to remember it was made in the face of 9/11, and a political leader has to get up and say something that will boost the confidence of people who are discouraged about something, and so he made that remark. It was an unfortunate remark that kind of resounded over the following six years.

It’s a somewhat dire picture that can be painted, as I mentioned at the start.

Let me give you an example of how these things are intertwined. We were talking a few moments ago about the exporting and importing nations, you know, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Mexico, Venezuela, et cetera, they all send oil to the U.S., Europe, China, Japan. And there is likely to be a pretty stiff contest for the remaining oil in the world. Now, one of the implications of that – not necessarily that we’re going to go to war with other countries – but for one thing our trade relations are certainly going to change.

The whole American retail system has been dependent on this 12,000 mile manufacturing supply line to the slave-labor factories of Asia, for all those $19.00 plastic salad shooters that they send over here to Wal-Mart. And one of the things we’ll see is that those 12,000 mile supply lines of cheap merchandise will change. And then we’ll be stuck in America having destroyed our local retail infrastructure over the last 40 years, with nothing but chain stores that don’t function very well. Moreover, the chain stores like the Wal-Marts and the Targets, et cetera, and even to a significant extent the big supermarket chains, they’re going to get into tremendous trouble with trucking, with just moving this stuff around.

Wal-Mart’s whole system relies on what they call “the warehouse on wheels,” which is the incessant circulation of thousands upon thousands of 18-wheel tractor-trailer trucks carrying the merchandise from the loading docks of San Pedro, California to the Wal-Marts in Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Orlando, and we’re going to have a lot of trouble keeping those diesel trucks going. At least at a cost that will make it possible for the chain stores to operate profitable. And that will make all the difference, because if Wal-Mart can’t make a profit on its activities, it’s not going to be in business that long. They’re not in the charity business; they’re not giving stuff away to people, although it may have seemed that way over the last ten years.

So, you can see how the oil import-export problem is directly connected to our everyday lives and how we get stuff.

Let me say this bluntly, because, and I know you know this, and I think it’s true – you scare some people. So let me ask you – I think we’ve painted a worst-case scenario. If, as a nation, we’re able to turn things around, to wrap our brains around the situation that we face, what could be the best-case scenario as of where we are at, right now, today?

That’s a tough question. I have to say this: All of our wishes about alternative fuels and things like that, I think are going to leave us pretty disappointed. They’re not going to do what we wish them to do. If we do wind power, my guess is it will be on the household level or the neighborhood level at best. We’re not going to put up a whole lot of 400-unit wind farms all around the country. That’s not going to happen.

I think that at this point we’ve gone so far that it’s really a question of what kind of disorder we’re going to enter. And I think it will be different regionally. I wrote in my book The Long Emergency that the different parts of the United States present a kind of a different picture. I’ve maintained for quite a few years that the Sunbelt is going to get into a lot of trouble. Its difficulties will be in exact proportion to the prosperity that it enjoyed in the last 30 years. Places like Phoenix and Las Vegas are going to dry up and blow away. Because on top of sheer power/energy problems, they’re going to have water problems, they’re going to have problems with a contest between different ethnic groups over the territory. What will happen in Phoenix and the southwest generally is that there will be a contest between Anglos and Hispanics over who owns the territory. And eventually they’ll discover that the region will support no large population of any ethnic group. That’s what will be the outcome of that. So, the Sunbelt is in trouble, the eastern or “wet Sunbelt” has additional problems. I’m more optimistic about the Northeast and upper Midwest.

Let me stop you there, because you have talked in your books very specifically about how you think when The Long Emergency really settles in, people in our area of the country, the Hudson Valley and the Northeastern United States, may have a better shot than Las Vegas, the Sunbelt areas , at adjusting to the changes that are coming. What do you think are the particular strengths here in the Hudson Valley and the Northeast?

We have a lot of water, both for drinking and doing other activities. We have some pretty good potential for generating electricity locally. I know in my area, you go by the old, very small-scale electric power stations from the early 20th century on the Battenkill and other streams, and the dams have been breached. The power stations are all decommissioned and the generators have been taken out for salvage.

There’s a certain charm, though, to seeing those remnants of the previous power systems. And we need to wise up about that.

Yeah, we do. There’s charm in a lot of ways just from knowing that a locality could depend on itself for power; that you didn’t have to be at the mercy of a gigantic grid that depended on hydro-electric from 1,500 miles away in Quebec or something. The idea of living locally, itself, is something that has been lost to the extent that few people in America have any sense of real community or allegiance to where they are. And that has been damaged in so many ways and so many dimensions that it would take a whole other show to talk about that.

But getting back to the Northeast, we can generate some electricity here. Not as much as we’re used to, but some. And they can do that in the Southwest, too, but I think with solar, perhaps, theoretically, but I think they’ll be overwhelmed with other problems.

The recurring theme, I think, is that things are going to have to be at a smaller scale.

Absolutely; also, we have good agricultural land here. Good farmland. It is deeply underutilized. We’re coming out of this era where dairy farming has really come to an end, and a lot of the farmland that is still out there is either derelict, being overgrown with the sumacs and the poplars, or it’s being used for suburban development or chain stores or parking lots. That’s going to come to an end, by the way. We don’t need anymore commercial infrastructure. That’s over with.

We’re beginning to see the birth of a new, local, smaller-scaled agriculture as people, for example, move into Washington County [New York], and the places that used to be dairy farms, now they’re producing lambs on a small scale, they’re producing market vegetables on a small scale. They’re not all making it, some of these people have better skills than others and they’re doing better, but we’re going to see a different kind of agriculture. Something that people forget in this area is that dairy farming is not what has always happened here. Dairy farming itself is a product of 20th century technology; because without electric milking machines and bulk refrigeration, and transport by truck, you didn’t really have the same kind of dairy industry. People couldn’t run herds of cows larger than 50 head before the electrification of the farm.

The cultural memory of what farming was in this part of the country is very short. And we’re going to discover that we’re capable of doing a much more mixed kind of farming, and we’re going to have to, whether we like it or not.

You know, it’s going to be a tough time to get through, and I know from reading your books that the population numbers may change globally over 25- to 50-year period, if this is the worst-case scenario. But you kind of see, on the other end of things – I don’t know if you read Bill McKibben’s recent book Deep Economy --

I haven’t gotten to it yet, but I know McKibben and I talk to him.

It’s a good book, and he talks a lot about re-engaging with your own community, being a part of your own culture, not being off in, as you call it, “the little house in the woods,” away from everything and everybody that really should be a part of your life. You wonder if, after all is said and done, when you return to small cities and towns where people are walking to work and walking to get their groceries and going to farmer’s markets – you wonder if it wouldn’t be a better world.

I have wondered that in many ways. I think that just the frantic scope of life in America today has taken a tremendous toll on our individual spirits. I travel around the country a lot, I do a lot of university lectures all over, and I see how people live in Dallas and Orlando, and the Bay Area of California and Los Angeles and even Las Vegas. I’ve been all over this country, and you know, I go to these places and I can’t believe how depressing it would be to have to live in them. And to have to spend two hours and 15 minutes a day going to and coming back from work on some Texas freeway. It would just be soul-killing. So, yeah, I agree with you. I think that there’re going to be a lot of trade-offs. I think there’ll be less canned entertainment, but there will be more people making their own culture in their own community. There will be fewer kiwi fruits from Chile, but perhaps we’ll have better localized cheese production.

I try to imagine this, actually, in my next book. I wrote a novel that is set in the post-oil future, in Washington County, New York. And why? Because I’ve lived in this area for 30 years, and I know the area pretty well, so I wanted to depict it there. So, this novel is set in that period. The electricity is not working too well…

The thing that interests me about the novel, and it’s going to be called World Made By Hand, it’s coming out from Atlantic Monthly Press in March of 2008; when you announced the book a few weeks ago, it hit me that this is really is the coming together of those two writing careers that you’ve had that I talked about [earlier], writing fiction and writing about the state of our nation. It seems obvious in retrospect, but it’s not a career path that I would have personally seen for your writing. Where did the idea come from?

Well, I never gave up the idea of writing fiction. In fact, I published a novel in 2004 which kind of went under the whole radar screen of America, not too many people got it, although I thought it was a pretty good performance…

Maggie Darling.

Yeah, it was my Martha Stewart novel, about a woman like Martha, it’s wasn’t about Martha, but it was about a character like her, going through a life meltdown. It was a funny book, but nobody really “got it.” Anyway, I’ve never given up on the idea of writing fiction, but I did think it was important to try to imagine what this world would be. In part, because this public discussion we’re having about these problems is so lame. And I think people need to be prompted to have some frame of reference for how me might think about what’s happening to us. You know, I was discouraged from doing it by the people who I’m in business with. My literary agent didn’t want me to write fiction, because he thought “you’re better known as a non-fiction writer,” so…

They’re looking for The Long Emergency II.

Right. And my publisher was looking for the same thing, and so they didn’t really greet this idea with a lot of enthusiasm at first, but I think once I got the manuscript in, they really liked it. And they saw what it was about and I think it may grab the public’s imagination. There have been several other instances of novels, fiction works, that have come out in the last couple years trying to depict a dystopian future. And they’ve been pretty bleak. You know, Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road, for example, about this father and son stumbling around this post-nuclear wasteland. My book is not bleak. It’s actually a rather lyrical, pastoral kind of setting; the world has become a much more tranquil place in a lot of ways, although there’s a lot of action. The United States is still recognizable, though an awful lot of things have changed.

Is there a lot of real-life research involved in looking at the trends and how [they] would inform the coming future?

Well, I wouldn’t say that, other than in the sense that I had already done so much research for these other books that I was able to form, for me, a pretty coherent sense of what this world would be like. And as in any work of fiction, the setting or the fictional world you’re creating is a kind of self-organizing system. Once you start introducing things into it, that establishes what that world is like. For example, very early in the book, I realized that these people were not riding bicycles. Why? Well, for two reasons. There are an awful lot of materials and components that they couldn’t get to keep the bikes going. Especially the rubber. And, the pavements were so badly broken up. We assume that the pavements would be just as smooth as they are now, but in fact, it’s rough.

It is now in some places.

Right. And it’s just not easy. In fact, going back into history, the road improvement project in America really started in the late 19th century with the bicyclists, who campaigned tirelessly – no pun intended – for better roads. In fact, they were at it long before the car people came along around 1915. So, trying to imagine this world, I was surprised by a lot of things that happened. Another thing that happens in the book is that they don’t have any wheat. They can’t get wheat. And they’re just eating cornbread all the time, and they have other things, they have buckwheat, they have barley, oats and stuff, but they can’t get wheat. Trade has been severely curtailed, and you can’t grow wheat in a lot of parts of the Northeast, because there’s a persistent disease in the ground called rust, which has been here for 300, 400 years, ever since the early colonists came over, and it tends to hide out in a lot of common weeds that have a symbiotic relationship with this wheat disease. So the people in my book are not eating – they don’t have regular bread. And they’re always complaining about the fact that there’s nothing but cornbread.

It is a kind of ripping yarn of a book, it turns out to only secondarily be about the future. It’s mostly what’s happening to the characters and events in the book. And there are things that are happening that are kind of fascinating; one of the things that happens in the book, one of the characters is a rich plantation owner, who’s absorbed the farms of the other people around him who have failed, and sort of taken them on as vassals and serfs. He’s developing a kind of neo-feudal relationship with the people in that part of his community. And he’s been operating trade boats between Albany and that part of the Hudson River in Washington County, and one of his trade boats has disappeared, along with its crew. It hasn’t returned. So my protagonist is sent down to Albany with a bunch of other guys to find it, and rescue the crew. And we begin to see what’s happened to the rest of the world, because he hasn’t been out of his town for quite a few years.

This was originally one of the questions I was going to ask you in the beginning, and we kind of made our way past it, but I think it’s a good way to wrap things up. Obviously, you’ve been a writer and a journalist for decades, and four of your last five books, and your next book, are about the decaying state of affairs because of the over-reliance on oil and what you call “the fiasco of suburbia.” The subject – and this has to be something that you think about – this subject has altered the trajectory of your career as a writer, from where it could have gone 25, 30 years ago. If you could talk to yourself when you were just starting out as a writer and say “this is where you’re going,” how do you think as a young man you would have felt about the way circumstance sort of took your career?

Oh, I think I would have been perfectly okay with it. In fact, I have very, very vivid memories of working for Capital Newspapers in Albany in 1973, and driving around The Northway [Interstate I-87, which runs from Albany to the Canadian border], driving up to Saratoga and Glens Falls sometimes, and on a Friday night seeing all these headlights coming at me. And this was around the time of the OPEC embargo incident, and just thinking, “This is going to come to an end. We’re not going to be able to live like this forever. And it’s a huge problem, and we’re not paying any attention to it.” And if I had known back then that I was going to devote a substantial amount of my career to writing about it, I think that it is legitimately, really the largest issue of our time. How we are going to live. And how we are going to make a transition from the magic of the 20th century to the reality of the 21st century. So I’m completely at ease with it. I hope I don’t drop dead tomorrow, but I think I’ve accomplished enough in my life.

I’m glad to hear that. I read The Geography of Nowhere, I think when it came out, 1993; that, and your subsequent books have totally changed the way that I see the world around me. It’s been a wild ride so far, reading the books that you’ve published.

How old are you, Alan?


So you’re a generation ahead of me, or behind me, which way is it? One of the things that I always marveled about with my parents, my father was born in 1917, my mother born in 1920. And they passed away within 26 hours of each other in 2001, before 9/11. But I always marveled at the fact that they saw the entire 20th century extravaganza in all of its glory. And for them, that was so normative, that they could never conceive of it coming to an end, or us having to live differently, or of things that were present in their lives not being around anymore. You know, my mom grew up through the entire communications revolution, from there being no radio, really, when she was a little baby, to the DVD generation and everything in-between. And that was the whole climbing up the great hill of magic of the 20th century.

“The American Dream” is an interesting phrase, if you think about it redefined as the oil century.

It also changed a lot. You know, the American Dream as I understand it, in perhaps its original form, was really about the idea of being able to start with pretty much nothing and make a life for yourself. And not necessarily become a billionaire, but to be able to prosper. But now the American Dream has become a strange, particular entitlement to a particular set of trophies. A certain kind of house, a certain kind of car, a certain set of entertainment appliances. And you know, that’s a pretty limited way to think of yourself. The spiritual side of this country has suffered an awful lot in the last 60 years.

Reading your books on the subject and Bill McKibben’s book recently, again, thinking that it could be a better world when all is said and done, if people re-scale their lives, if society re-scales itself to a more sustainable level, it doesn’t seem like it’s as bad as it might first appear.

No, in fact, I’ve been sort of reflecting lately; I’ve been doing a lot of bike rides around Greenfield Center [New York], in what was once pretty much a farm district outside of Saratoga. It’s become somewhat suburbanized, but there’s still a residue of farms there. One of the things that I think about often is that we’re going to be inhabiting the rural land differently. Because it’s going to take more human attention to do farming. There’s going to be fewer machines, and more people out there. And more people living in proximity to each other, and in cooperation with each other.

And more people, by the way, perhaps feeling that they’re actually contributing something.

Absolutely. Working shoulder to shoulder with people they know, at things that are important for their survival. But you know, what’s impressed me also is the loneliness of the contemporary landscape; the loneliness of the rural landscape today, which is deeply uninhabited by people participating in doing rural things. One of the weird things about suburbia was it allowed people to live an urban lifestyle in the rural setting. And that’s not going to be possible in the future. People who decide to live in the country are going to have to be working at country things, from now on. And there’s whole other discussion about what will happen to our cities and what will happen to our towns. I think that our towns here in this area are going to be coming back. I think Glens Falls, Hudson Falls, Fort Edward, Greenwich, Cambridge, those places, I think, have reached their low point and will be coming back up, again, as local living becomes more important.

So all is not bleak.

No, not at all.


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