Category Archives: essay

The car of the future today

Building of the future, today

It’s time for a new car. I’ve driven the old Pinto for nearly 44 years and at long last I’m rid of it. Gladiola and I made the decision a few days ago and last night, in the gloom and heat, I drove it to the Cliffs of Destruction. As the silvery moon rose between Jupiter and Mars, I released the emergency brake, slid out through the driver’s door and watched it roll over the edge. It disappeared from view, then could be heard to crash on the rocks. Though I’d taken care to empty the fuel tank, it exploded on impact anyway, then quickly was swallowed by an enormous wave. I couldn’t help but think as I called a helicopter taxi service, this can’t be good for the environment. There must be a better way to dispose of old cars.

So now Gladiola and I are on a new car search, and I have to say how proud I am of the world’s automakers. They’ve really risen to the challenge and almost overnight are producing cars that not only don’t cause too much environmental damage, they actually reverse it. Amazing.

I’ve read the brochures, and here’s a partial list of features:

  • My car will have all the latest technology
  • My car will do zero to sixty in a respectable 3.4 seconds
  • My car will be made solely from reclaimed materials
  • My car will generate zero pollution and one day, after decades of driving, it will biodegrade into a fully functioning tomato patch
  • My car will filter pollutants from the atmosphere and convert those pollutants into highly nutritious energy bars automatically distributed to those in need
  • My car will use photosynthesis to convert CO2 to oxygen making it a negative zero carbon emitter
  • My car will use anti-gravity technology for propulsion with a hover range of slightly above ground level to 40 feet above traffic
  • My car will have a retractable in-dash record player
  • My car will repel dirt and water and never require cleaning
  • My car will transfer the life energy from my passengers to me, the driver, thus slowly reversing the aging process. This is important as I’ve become flabby and potato-faced.
  • My car will cost about 27,000 dollars, give or take.


Seventeen Things Delayed

Environmentally friendly vine grown tomato onions.

I know we were going to list Seventeen Things you can do to Save the Environment today. Our researchers have been hard at work on that and had made a good deal of progress until at our round table meeting this morning, Stupid Tad pointed out that each simple solution was based on time travel, and that the average person doesn’t have access to a time travel machine. The team has gone back to the drawing board. In place of saving the environment, we have an update for you from Artisanal Onion.

There have been a few unforeseen problems at the Artisanal Onionry. As many home onion product makers have discovered, growing, harvesting, and distilling onions to make delicious and wholesome products is expensive and difficult, and requires hours upon hours of training. Worst of all, attention to detail must be paid by someone. But by whom (who?)?

Because of the recent walkout by workers*, management has been handling all phases of the operation, clocking in more than a dozen hours a week making products, doing marketing and order fulfillment, and checking the water levels in the quadraphonic onion vats. Also, we have to sweep up discarded onion skins. It’s exhausting .

Purchasers of recent small-batch products can apply for a full refund by sending back products that may have fouled due to the onion fungus or stinkbug infestation. Our suppliers have apologized and we pass that apology on to you.

There is some good news to report. We’ve finally received FDA approval for several new and exciting products: onion enemas, onion skin condoms, strawberry infused onion shampoo. We hope to have these ready for delivery in time for one the many holiday seasons sprinkled throughout the calendar.

*Workers demanded that payment be valid and fungible, and that management provide them with onion goggles. Artisanal Onion is a strong believer in the free market and that our contractor partners, as business owners themselves, are responsible for their own equipment and income. We must end senseless government overreach and regulation plaguing the home onion industry. So called “Big Onion” enjoys a great deal of freedom and squelches small business competition from entrepreneurs like myself. Write your congressperson (who is probably in the pocket of Big Onion, so what’s the point…).

Zombie environment

A pretty African sunset

Can we talk about the end of the world for just one post? The UN global report has been released and it’s pretty grim. Grimmer than zombies (but arguably beneficial for zombies). Ultra grim.  

Here’s National Geographic’s story on the story.

Here’s an excerpt from the Washington Post’s story. “The U.N. report ‘means that nature is collapsing around us, and it’s a real wake-up call to humanity,’ said Andrew Wetzler, managing director of the nature program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a conservation group.”

I disagree. We’ve been ignoring wake-up calls for a long time and we’ll ignore this one. Wake-up calls are bad for business, and let’s discredit anyone involved in this UN report. In 1962, Rachel Carson publishes Silent Spring, documenting the damage from pesticides. So what happens? By 1972, the US bans DDT in the US, but its use continued throughout the world, and is still used. You can use your personal internet web searching prowess to read all about DDT and the environment. No place on earth is untouched by DDT.

If you’re old enough, you remember nights raucous with the sounds of insects, frogs, and other critters. You remember how a short drive on a suburban road would leave your windshield smattered with bug splats, and porch lights surrounded by a cloud of moths and mosquitos and other insects. Last year, articles like this one appeared.

My children don’t know these sounds and have never had to squeegee a few hours accumulation of bug carcasses off their windshields. They haven’t seen a sky criss-crossed with massive flocks of migrating birds, so they don’t look up and wonder what’s wrong. They do have phones that can show them pictures of what the world looked like and can see Imax films documenting the once stunning diversity of the natural world.

It’s not up to us, the consumers of the world. We’re kind of sheepish. Take common lawn and garden chemicals. Tell us that spraying a little something will kill dandelions and we’ll buy it because we’ve been convinced that a uniform grass lawn is very important. We don’t think about the fresh water that lawns consume, nor the half-life of the chemicals we apply. We don’t know to ask about active ingredients and inert ingredients. You (and you know who you are) don’t want us to think about that, so we don’t. Good job by your marketing and PR departments, and kudos to your lobbying, I might add! So it’s up to you. This wake-up call’s for you. Because we’ll keep buying the stuff you tell us to and we’ll believe whatever you want us to believe.

I want to say something about soft drinks, which I admit I know little about. But, when I stopped using them, the quality of my life did not decline. I talked about this with a friend and we agreed, these products might have no real benefit. Anyhoo, here’s a question for the asking, “what percentage of the world’s fresh water is used to produce and consume bottled beverages? How much plastic gets into the enviroment because of all these drinks? Who wants to think about that every time you twist off a cap to enjoy a cold one! That would be grim.

To sum up, everything’s fine. Earnings are up. Keep doing what you’re doing. At least you don’t have to clean the windshield very often.

Next time: 17 simple things you can do for the environment

Sprung upon

The day after the Shining Star closed

I went for breakfast one morning to find that the Shining Star, a greasy spoon on Amsterdam and 78th had closed. It was Saturday morning and the people I shared my life with were still in their pajamas. Signs taped in the window said goodbye and thanked everyone for being loyal customers and we’ll miss you. Businesses up and down the avenues were closing because of high rents. And on the cross streets, too. The empty restaurant stayed vacant a long time, until after we left New York I think, but I can’t be sure any more. Maybe a bank moved in, or a drug store.

Now it’s winter in a different city. It’s on days like today I want to get lost in the city, to get on the subway, transfer to a line I’ve hardly ever taken, get off at a strange stop, and then walk, camera in hand like a tourist. There aren’t subways in this town, though. I could Uber, I guess, but it’s harder to get somewhere by accident in a car.

What is a day like this? Cold, but not bitter, the sun sharp enough to make your eyes ache, but not bleed. A day with unallotted time, where you’re itchy and your legs twitch, eager to pound unfamiliar sidewalk where whole sections are swallowed up in the long shadows cast by the winter sun.

“It made me feel sprung upon,” is a sentence near the beginning of Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility, a New York novel of the late 1930s, and it’s New York I wish was outside my window, like it was every day for the first fifteen years of this century. I’m re-reading Rules, comparing it structurally with a story I’ve been working on for nearly forever called the New Palace Hotel. Hotel is decent enough, but needs work under the hood. For stretches, it just rolls along the highway, like the old Toyota on the first page, purring as it disappears around a mountain bend. And then chokes and coughs out some white smoke. It’s needs work to turn into something reliable. Anyway, I really like that sentence, “It made me feel sprung upon.” If I could tap out a few sentences like that, well, that would set things right.

The PowerPoint Fiasco

Do it as long as I have and you’ll see a lot of PowerPoint. Bad PowerPoint. Slide after slide crammed with words, bullets, charts, and clip art. That’s right. Clip art. And a presenter reading every word you see on the screen in glorious 1024 x 768 high fuzz resolution. Sometimes they get creative and the words bounce in, or fade in, or drop in, or look like they’re written with lasers. All that does is draw attention to what amounts to a waste of time. My time. Your time.

office.jpg
Is it a coincidence that they moved me into this building after it all went down?

Call me an evangelist. Call me an agent of change. Call me a disrupter. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. I set about showing the world how to use PowerPoint for good, not evil. It’s all about restraint. Don’t use words. Don’t use PowerPoint’s features. Just images. Not just any image, but an image that perfectly accompanies the words that are coming out of the presenter’s mouth. That’s it. No words. Just images.

The steps are simple. Maybe a little bit too simple. And that’s where the trouble started.

  1. Does what you have to say need to be said? If not, maybe send an email or put your feet up on your desk and take a nap. If so, OK. Go to the next step.
  2. Understand that few people really care, so just invite those who have something at stake to your little presentation.
  3. If you make a slide show, use only images. You can have a title for each slide, but use few words. Don’t make people read your slides. If they’re reading, they’re not listening.
  4. Make it snappy. Just make your point, answer some questions, and let them out as quickly as you can. Don’t be boring or self-indulgent. Or boring.

This radical concept got me banned from the League of PowerPoint Presenters. They revoked my license. For months, Traditionalist PowerPointilists sent my family harassing, wordy slideshows. Eventually they forced me to recant my doctrine in a very public and humiliating slideshow with slide after slide of bullet-point lists and stock clip art. They made me use charts with incomprehensible metrics based on irrelevant data. I lost the audience after 3 slides… I was ruined.

The lesson here? The PowerPoint fundamentalist faction governs the slideshow community. Presentations are the currency of power and the world is a cruel, cruel place.

Fear of falling

In 1987, the world’s human population reached 5 billion and the last of the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō (Moho braccatus) died. According to the bird’s Wikipedia entry, “The last Kauaʻi ʻōʻō was male, and his song was recorded for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The male was recorded singing a mating call, to a female that would never come. He died in 1987.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Non-extinct birds in Washington Square, NYC

Back in those days when there was still wan hope for the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, I took a creative writing class for what I hoped would be an easy few credits on the road to a long-delayed undergraduate degree. A guy wrote a short story called “Fear of Falling,” about a man who managed to fall into holes in the ground. I don’t remember much about the story, but the writer impressed me. He was lean, wore John Lennon glasses, and always had a scarf on and some kind of tweedy long coat. He looked like I imagined someone starting out as a writer did, and he used his adjectives to great advantage.

The story receded from memory until recently and has resurfaced as a brand new fear. In these days, there are lots of things to fear, but, a month into the news blackout, I’m left to my imagination, a place darker than the combined output of all media, fake and real.

This is the dog’s fault. Several times a day, the dog must be released into the back yard so that she might pee, poop, sniff and chase things. I stand watch, plastic bag in hand. Recently, on a windy day, a branch fell from the old sugar maple, landing a few feet from me, but ever since, I’m convinced that this will happen:

On a brutally cold day, a branch falls, striking me and knocking me out. As my blood leaks out, I slowly freeze to death. The dog, heroic and well-meaning, but barely 40 pounds, tries to drag my dying body to the door and to get the attention of my family. Alas, she is too small and my body is discovered hours later, only moments after dying.

Now, whenever I leave the house, I scan the trees, looking for telltale signs of imminent branch failure, ever vigilant, ever fearful that something will fall on me. I also check for a Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, ’cause even though this isn’t Hawaii, you never know. You just don’t.

015803106471b6a513e5704911f23f1ab46f1b2551
The murderous sugar maple

Day the 4th

Before diving into today’s post, a reminder that International Turn Signal Observance Day is fast approaching. As you know, the US has pulled out of the ITSO agreement, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go ahead and use your turn signals anyway.

01ba29ce63fd9a06750c21a4981564ee1485f730cb.jpg
Uplifting image of people on a California Beach, December, 2015

Now, where I live, there are alleys behind the houses, only here they call them lanes. The other day, I overheard several of my neighbors chatting about landscaping, and other neighborhood matters like the regrettable incident during Halloween.

When suddenly from the west a loud bang, followed moments later by a cold wind.

“What was that?” neighbor one confuddled?

“Could have been a nuke,” neighbor two suggested.

“No, too far west. It would be more to the south, right, where DC is?” a passerby walking a charming Newfie mix said.

“Besides, that cold gust would have been a hot wind that melts the skin right off the bone,” neighbor one concluded, a note of cheeriness in her voice.

Then it started raining and all said in unison, “Thunder! It was thunder! Of course.”

Then, and this was beautiful – and to be honest, I started to feel particularly bad about squatting and hiding behind a bush observing all this – they put their arms around each other and began singing folk songs in what sounded like ancient Gaelic.

Now stop worrying and get out there and use those turn signals!