Partially-Read Book Review: Sharon Astyk’s “Making Home”

Making HomeAre you ready for life in the future? Are you really ready for the-future-that-is-now? Find out by reading at least the early chapters of Making Home: Adapting Our Homes and Our Lives to settle in Placewhich is by far the most fun book about the apocalypse I’ve read yet! Seriously. Let me start with that assurance, so you don’t get thrown off by this wild quote from its author, Sharon Astyk, which is what I really wanted to use for my lede:

“I admit I find it enormously difficult to imagine a scenario in which the US does not collapse on some level—in nearly every available measure, it is in danger of doing so.”

It’s my belief that we’re not scrambling about like rats on a sinking ship on climate change because the enormity of the climate-change bogeyman — catastrophe, apocalypse, doom, collapse — is both too big and too hard to believe. Won’t happen, we think. We watch movies about phenomenal disasters and experience catharsis and comfort to witness an extreme outcome that seems to outstrip any possible horror we might face in real life. (I don’t think that’s my idea, but I have no idea who to credit for it.)

But what if “collapse” meant something different? Something less Bruce Willis and more Cormac McCarthy? The Soviet Union collapsed. Cuba collapsed. New Orleans collapsed. Collapse, in Astyk’s book, means (I’m quoting, in abridged form):

  1. People get really mad at their government.
  2. Crime goes up while police protection is less available or privatized
  3. Everyone gets poorer fast.
  4. Cost and attainability of food becomes an issue.
  5. Services and utilities are widely disrupted.
  6. People are pushed together.

Right. That could definitely all happen has been happening. Collapse is more of a continuum of degradation than a fireworks show.

So Making Home is really a book about how to set yourself up so that a rougher, less secure society with expensive or hard-to-get food and expensive or frequently-interrupted utilities and services, doesn’t throw you into a personal crisis at every bump.

Which is what happens to us, right? We’re not set up to lose access to food and electricity and gas and water, so when natural disasters — earthquakes, hurricanes, blizzards — come our way, we go into panic mode, stockpiling at the grocery store and filling our bathtubs with water. Our (for the general population living in better-than-poverty conditions) lifestyle and society is built so well, has been so reliable, that we’re ill-equipped for its disfunction.

A really easy example from my own experience? In the United States, I never worry about how much cash I have. I can use my plastic cards at stores or use the plastic to get the cash. Power doesn’t go out citywide, banks don’t run out of cash. When I visited Argentina, I had a few close calls where I dashed from bank to banks, because the ATMs were out of cash.

The most fun part of Making Home is the Triage section. The book assesses the relative merits of staying where you are and getting prepared to deal with more instability versus picking a new place to hunker down. I found myself surprised to see that no one region of the country or type of environment is advocated over another. It’s about your own personal calculation.

But it’s awfully fun to read her take on the pros and cons of choosing the city, the suburbs, or the country. She pulls no punches. “Do you drink a log of milk?” she asks of the potential country dweller. “Well, I hope you plan to milk each morning,” because you are not getting milk from Ye Old General Store.

If you’re a city dweller who “presently enjoys all the benefits of urban life with extended trips into the countryside to reconnect with nature, ask yourself how you will like doing without these — in August, during a heat wave.”

“It is useful, I think, to decide which sort of person you are, and thus, where you will be happy—out in the country where you can get drunk and shoot deer through the unopened windows of your trailer or in the city where you can get drunk and lecture a passerby on the evils of jaywalking or public urination.”

See, doesn’t the collapse sound fun? It’s like rated-R summer camp, forever. 

The book then begins to outline all the ways Astyk thinks we will manage our food, income, and comfort (you’ll be wearing a lot of sweaters in winter and sharing that wide mattress with more bodies). She’s no mere philosopher—she manages a homestead complete with husband, children, crops, and animals in New York (she picked “the country”).

It’s plenty interesting, but that’s about when I got a notice from the library that the book was on hold and I couldn’t renew it anymore. So that’s where I leave it, and you!

I’ll end, though, with its ending, for another bit of fun. I love a good index — it’s like a old-fashioned word cloud, giving you an at-a-glance flavor of its contents. It can be suggestive, evocative, a list-poem. Here is a taste of this book’s index entries, which really tickle me:

  • Iceland
  • immigrants
  • indebtedness
  • informal economy
  • infrastructure
  • ironing
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • job loss
  • Kale
  • knives
  • medical issues
  • New Orleans
  • parsnips
  • pass-down economy
  • peak oil
  • pepper spray
  • pet food
  • Poem of Difficult Hope
  • refrigerators
  • refugees, preparing for
  • relationships
  • rhubarb

Well, on to the next read, I suppose! I think it’s going to be Please Kill Me, an oral history of punk music. I’m expecting it’ll be more of an upper.

It’s a Privilege

If you haven’t yet dipped into the conversation about how writers balance their income-streams and their creative output—or, more to the point, how many writers are subsidized or supported by their spouses—use this piece as an opportunity to retrace the path through the links to Ann Bauer’s Salon piece, Laura Bogart’s response, and more.

I was thrilled to first read Bauer’s essay, suggesting that for as long as “sponsored” (or, less kindly, “kept”) writers omit their status as such from their narratives of themselves and their careers, they are perpetuating problems of privilege. Of course, the same is true well beyond the writing world. Forget envy of productive writers who also have cute outfits at literary parties and manage to attend yoga classes in the middle of the day. Full-time mothers, editorial assistants, public school teachers — these jobs are all ripe for spousal sponsorship.

In the years between graduating college and seeing friends build careers and families, I slowly began to notice a pattern. Not — not! — universal. But noticeable. Men were choosing power-and-money jobs, women were choosing careers of passion or purpose. Freelancing, teaching, participating in the publishing industry, pursuing PhDs. And then these men and women paired up, and women making modest salaries jumped up in purchasing power and comfort, their gripes about the cost of insurance, loan payments, and rent fading into silence. (Some already had the safety net or outright support of financially comfortable families.) New York is a city that seems to be stuffed with investment-bannker—associate-editor marriages.

As an unmarried person, my financial-familial life story isn’t written yet. Neither is my career’s. But even single, I have plenty of my own privilege to acknowledge and to be grateful for. The cultural and political structures that I imagine create these patterns we unwittingly follow deserve much, much more excavation and discussion. I’ll leave this morning’s post to be the first part.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Dubai-Property-11Hananah Zaheer weighs in on the recent discussion in Salon, Dame, Missouri Review, Bustle, Medium and on various personal blogs, about writers, money, privilege and support. (Gentle Readers, we’ll do a round-up on those posts later this week).

It’s a privilege.

I often joke that I wish I was a writer in the old days. Non-specific, old days where artists had patrons who took care of their expenses and living, and all they were responsible for was writing, creating, painting. My husband likes to remind me that I do: him.

This is true. Much like Ann Bauer admits in her Salon piece I, too, must confess that I do not have the pressures that come from having difficult financial circumstances. I live in Dubai in a nice neighborhood. I have help at home, I drive a nice car; I had never considered the word exactly, but I fit the description of…

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What I finally found the courage to throw away

 

I spent good money on it. It was a special deal. Organic. Super-size pack. I dreamed of all the pleasure and wellness it would bring me, day by day.

It was more than four years ago, which I can only calculate because I can see in my mind’s eye having the big cardboard box of it in the apartment I haven’t lived in for over four years.

At some point, I tossed the cardboard box the fruity green Whole Foods tea came in, and I transferred the remaining plastic packets of tea bags into my catch-all tea box … where they’ve sat. And sat. And sat.

Unopened. For four years.

And last night, looking at them, trying to fit my Triple Echinacea tea into the box (stocking up for winter sniffle season!), I thought: Hmm, these are taking up a lot of space. 

And I thought: Maybe I’ll use them though. They’re still sealed in the plastic packets. Maybe I’ll want them this season. Maybe I’ll have a guest over who wants them. 

Gnawing away at my stomach, as my hand held them mid-air, frozen, was this feeling: It would be such a waste to throw them away. 

20141211-103633-38193731.jpgThen I had that vision of my old apartment, with a four years younger me, trying the tea I was so excited about, and not, to be honest, really loving the flavor. A little too fruity, a little artificial tasting. I hadn’t wanted another cup in four years. I hadn’t opened the packet to serve it to a guest. It was time to let go.

And then I remembered my loophole: my compost! Also known as the you-don’t-have-to-eat-that-shriveled-orange exemption, or the those-herbs-have-seen-better-days bin. 

Into the salad container in the freezer they go, like a limbo for sad produce and onion skins. And like that, years of letting this little mistake, this guilt-clutter, this biodegradable depravity, weigh me down like so many organic cement blocks, came to an end.

Back to the earth you go, poor little tea bags. May you come back as cherry tomatoes.

 

Was Susan Sontag the Last Public Intellectual? Nancy Kates on Making ‘Regarding Susan Sontag’

Please oh please let this documentary end up on HBO Go…

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Trying to capture the range and brilliance of the late Susan Sontag, perhaps our most illuminating public intellectual, is a heady task, but documentarian Nancy Kates does a wonderful job of it in her documentary Regarding Susan Sontag. I went into this movie seeing Sontag as an idea, a voice on a page, and I came out of it with far more clarity about who Sontag was as a woman. Not just the quick-witted, sharp-barbed thinker who was able to clarify and elucidate our greatest achievements and most horrifying fears; she was, above all, a person, with all that entails — difficult and prickly, brave and curious, maddening and enlightening. Regarding Susan Sontag premieres on HBO Monday, December 8, and I took the chance to talk to Kates about how the documentary came together.

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On Turning Down Reading Invites: What’s a Writer’s Time Worth?

It’s not like I’m being asked to do out-of-town speaking engagements, but I like to prepare for the problems of my aspirational future today. I found this a useful reminder of a question I’m often grappling with—what’s my time worth, to who or what do I owe my time, and what uses of my time will make my own life best and honor my most important commitments and relationships? Phew! And, just as important, is Lev Raphael’s suggestion of what to say when you’re thinking “Gosh, what can I say when I don’t have to but just really want to say no?”

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Lev Raphael Lev Raphael

A guest post from Lev Raphael:

Years ago, when I was speaking on a panel at the Jewish Community Center in Pittsburgh, I met the writer Evelyn Torton Beck, who was personable, wise, and funny.  She was the first author to talk to me about accurately assessing what my time was worth when I was invited to speak out of town.

It’s not just the day you’re there, she said, if it’s only a day.  It’s the day before, getting ready, and then at least one day of re-entry into your regular schedule, sometimes more, depending on how complicated your visit was.

I’d never thought of doing a gig in those terms and it was immensely helpful.  Like the time I was invited to speak in San Francisco, and the speaker’s fee was good.  But that’s as far as it went: they weren’t even offering to cover hotel…

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bulbs

Autumn In The Garden Of The Winter Of Our Discontent

It’s December. October was really the time to put my summer vegetable garden to bed, really. To pull out the dying tomato vines, the bitter overgrown lettuce plants, the fall peas I planted that didn’t really grow in time to produce any peas. But, that didn’t happen. Who can even remember why?

So for the past week I was checking the forecast, hoping for a mild enough, dry December day where I could get to my plot and at the very least plant the bulbs I went on a shopping spree buying. Thursday it was! Low forties, no rain on the forecast, and I was going to steal a chunk of my freelancer’s lunch hour to get in, drop some bulbs, and get out.

Of course, the ground was cold and wet from all the earlier rain, and it soaked right through my gloves, and my jacket kept dragging in the dirt, and gross half-rotted fallen tomatoes were scattered around like tiny boobytraps. But, I persevered!

I just hope I did it right. Five inches down? Three? Oh who can remember! Here’s a photo of my Gypsy Princess hyacinth, Mount Hood daffodil, and Angelique, Sun Parrot, Black Parrot, and Lilac Perfection tulip bulbs all nestled in nice and cozy. (So I can refer back to this later and see where the heck I put them and if they all grew!)
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That took long enough that I didn’t really have time to deal with all the dead or going-to-freeze-and-die-soon plants still in the ground, so … I just left them. But I still seemed to have un-picked carrots with healthy green leaves coming out of the soil, so I pulled them all up at once for my final harvest of the season. Pretty great because one of these is actually the biggest carrot I grew all year (maybe it needed five months to fully develop? What the heck variety did I plant?). And just one weird carrot grew a crazy beard of roots. So, that’s cool.

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But back indoors, cozy and warm, are these amaryllis bulbs. They’ve been in my apartment, un-potted, for so long that they’ve started to sprout shoots anyway, even with no soil or water. Damn! That must be a good sign, right?

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What I Wish I’d Said To The Man Who Offered Me A Prayer

Would you like a prayer for anything today, ma’am? 

No thank you, I said. We wished each other a good day with a smile apiece and I dashed down into the subway station. I believe in saying no to everyone (except those people collecting signatures to get a candidate on a ballot). But, having worked these grueling street gigs before, I never ignore the person or withhold a smile.

On this morning, though, I was almost-late for a client meeting. When I flicked my eyes at the red fabric banners held up between what looked like white PVC pipes, I saw ‘Prayer Station’ in large white letters. Oh boy, I thought to myself, the evangelists are here! If I’d had extra time I would’ve walked to a different subway entrance.

As I caught my breath on the platform, waiting for my train, I wondered whose format was he using: Which church bought the red apron he wore, printed the flyers in his pockets? I smiled imagining the conversation I might have instigated. I’m pretty sure those weren’t going to be neutral, platform-agnostic, open-source-type prayers.

I sat down on the scratched-up wooden station bench, and a lump formed in my throat. It was a lovely thought, the prayer offering. A free magic service. How wonderful and beautiful and healing it could be to offer poems to subway riders. I pictured myself on that hot street corner, poems in hand. Pen ready for service. It’d be no different. A fragment of belief, a flash of communion with the deeper and higher and interconnected world.

And it hit me: A prayer for peace! I would desperately like to suggest he pray for peace in the Middle East. But I missed my chance. Now I felt regretful—was that crazy?

Who knows what these prayers do—they certainly haven’t ended the violence yet—but in a world so raw and rough, can prayers or poems really be superfluous? As a poet, I believe I’m obligated to believe in their magic and necessity. (Or at least in their possibility—even nuns and rabbis wrestle with belief.) So in his way, that young man got me to make my prayer, my wish. And I hope in this moment the feeling of a poem or a prayer grasps you, and you allow it to stay for a moment.

We are human beings, inventors of new forms of beauty and wonder. We conjured the sonnet and the prayer from nothing. That in itself seems worthy of a moment of thanks.


A note: This morning run-in happened in July, when every morning had new and horrible headlines about Israel and the Palestinians. It was a summer of terrible news and feelings of helplessness, and unfortunately, the need for words and deeds is no less urgent this fall. 

Bonus: If you feel hungry for some feelings and don’t see them anywhere inside yourself, let me invite you to check out Poetry’s app, a beautiful little gem to keep in your pocket. When you open it, you hit the Spin button and two wheels spin past each other, matching moods and subjects and generating a list of poems to explore.

2014 Was — Secretly — the Year of the Jewish Woman

I’m not sure what to make of Gaby Hoffman’s “Honorary Jewess Triple Crown,” but I’ll take any opportunity to reiterate and celebrate how fantastic Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer are, and what a radical (double meaning intended) movie Obvious Child was.

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Jewish women have generally done well in America. From Emma Goldman to Erica Jong, Susan Sontag to Pink, they have broadened our cultural horizons. Sure, they are often portrayed in the media as JAPs (Jewish-American Princesses), like Cher in Clueless and Fran on The Nanny — or else, god help us, as the overbearing mother or background sister to a creep like Portnoy. But who isn’t stereotyped on the big screen? At such a tiny percentage of the population, it’s impressive Jewish women make an impact at all.

2014 has been different, though. 2014 was the year that Jewish women got their hands on the wheel – not the mainstream-media wheel, exactly, but still, the wheel of a perfectly functional, increasingly visible car — and drove off in a new direction, with all the exhilaration (but, thankfully, none of the impending doom) of Thelma and Louise, as Harvey Keitel’s police…

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2014’s Gender-Equitable ‘NY Times’ Year-End Book List Shows How Far We’ve Come in Just a Few Years

Something else to be thankful for — and motivated by — this season!

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When I was an earnest early-20-something, I used to angrily count the gender ratio of the New York Times Book Review‘s annual “100 Notable Books” list, always sure that it would be far from 50-50. My scornful prediction inevitably proven right, I would immediately take to the keyboard and rant about it on my personal Blogspot blog.

So much has changed in a few short years! Now I’m a jaded early-30-something, and Blogspot rants have been replaced by a whole new generation of earnest 20-somethings on Tumblr. And also, far more significantly, the New York Times Book Review has actually made progress on gender.

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Oil And Honey. (And The Apocalypse?)

A (Completely-Read) Book Review

If you want to be inspired, thrilled, moved, and horrified—and you’re into choose-your-own-adventure and Never-Ending-Story type plots that evolve as you go—you’ve got to read Oil And Honey

It’s somehow a page-turner about legislative politics.

It’s somehow a page-turner about tending beehives on a farm in Vermont.

Basically, it’s a page-turner about whether or not there will continue to life on Earth as we know it. Author Bill McKibben is a new name to me, but the career he traces in this memoir-ish book makes it clear that I’m late to the game. He was writing books that warned us about global warming (like The End of Nature) back when I was still learning to write my name. Increasing desperation led him to put down the pen and pick up the sword of civil disobedience. It’s a bildungsroman about activism.

For years, he has had the privilege and the burden of being close to the numbers and the data about climate change. It can be easy to settle into a static sense of the problem: the planet’s getting warmer, I should really be “greener,” ah well. But he unleashes some real new data whoppers on the reader, and his anxiety that time is running out and the point of no return is maybe a quick sprint away, or perhaps entirely beyond our reach, is contagious. I know I mentioned “the apocalypse” in my headline, because that’s how I think about it. But the devastation of climate change is never going to be one big mushroom cloud. It’s going to be the disappearance, slowly or quickly, of the privileges, opportunities, resources, comforts, and beauty in our world—from urban creature comforts to productive and healthy farms to easy international travel to beloved natural landscapes.

Just a couple key, terrifying instances of McKibben math:

  • Two years ago, 15,785 record-high temperatures were recorded in the U.S. A regression analysis concluded it was “a once-in-4,779-years event.”
  • Scientists estimate we can put about 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere without totally, epically, absolutely screwing ourselves forever. We could do that in about 15 years. But what’s more, fossil fuel companies (and countries) have 2,795  gigatons at their disposal (at a value to them of about $28 trillion).

And yet, McKibben’s series of successes in mobilizing regular old people from around America and the world, through 350.org, the organization he and some of his students formed, are galvanizing. You wouldn’t think they could win—especially not right away—but they chalk up one victory after another. They move the needle, tick by tiny tick. They use the tried and true tactics of getting arrested in nonviolent demonstrations, and they put the power of the internet and email to effective use.

I’m not sure if I’m conveying how spell-binding I found all this. Like I said, it felt like being a part of The Never Ending Story, where the plot is created in real-time. Everything in the book is still happening right now. Nothing has made me feel more upset or more hopeful. Well, nothing except maybe participating in last month’s People’s Climate March, which 350.org organized in concert with many other organizations and movements.

You should read this book. It’s informative, fun, interesting, and unbelievably important. It will fill you in on lots of stuff that we didn’t catch on the daily news, and it will tell you what and where the most important fights for our future are happening now. Also, there are great, romantic vignettes about his friend Kirk, the wise Vermont beekeeper, and many apt analogies about bees and democracy and capitalism.

McKibben doesn’t demand that you take up a protest sign so much as he invites you to see the world in all its precarious beauty and creeping tragedy. And whether you know it or not, you and I are, at this very moment, a part of writing its last chapter.