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Here Be Dragons

Turns out we live in a country where private property is sacred. Who knew?!

In March of 2019 I spent a couple of days in the Sierra Foothills (a.k.a., the gold country). One reason is that this landscape is beautiful in the Spring – wildflowers and green grass, small, rocky streams and blue oak. The other reason was, admittedly, perverse: To see just how little of this wonderland a person can actually set foot on.

I really don’t want to walk through people’s houses, or through their yards. I’m fine staying off private property when that property is an urban or suburban lot. And farms are not so great for walking most of the time – I don’t need to walk through fields of irrigated beans. It is the glorious foothills that I wish to be able to walk through.

Above about 4,000 feet, the land was pretty much economically useless (at least after most timber had been removed) and it therefore often became public, and we can walk on it.

Because of the foresight and efforts of the Coastal Conservancy, and because the immediate coastline is pretty useless for farming and ranching, we have all of the California coast to walk on!

But the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys were great for agriculture. And the grassy foothills were great for grazing. So we can’t walk there – with very, very few exceptions.

I saw a sign like the one above in the foothills. The photo above is not of the actual sign I saw because I was too freaking scared to get close enough to take a photo. I guess the sign did its job.

Although I was, in mid-March, much too early for the peak of wildflowers and the weather was gray, the foothills were lovely. And, sadly, I was observing all this beauty from the road, looking over a fence with a no trespassing sign on it, always.

Other civilized countries are so much more civilized about this!

  • In Finland, everyone may walk, ski, ride a horse or cycle freely in the countryside where this does not harm the natural environment or the landowner, except in gardens or in the immediate vicinity of people’s homes (yards).
  • Everyone in Norway enjoys the right of access to, and passage through, uncultivated land in the countryside.
  • In Sweden, notwithstanding the right to own property everyone shall have access to nature in accordance with allemansrätten (“the everyman’s right.”)
  • In England and Wales, there is a limited right to roam, without compensation for landowners.
  • In Scotland there is a right to be on land for recreational, educational and certain other purposes and a right to cross land. The rights exist only if they are exercised responsibly.

(I didn’t do extensive research – the above items are all from a Wikipedia article on Freedom to Roam.)

The title of this post is, oddly, what comes to mind for me when I see signs on the trail informing me that a path or area is off limits. And here are a few photos from my 2019 trip to the foothills:

(OK, the one in the middle is not 2019 – my Dad took that in 1960)

Coming soon…

…the actual walk across California, in about five segments, starting in March and ending when the snow pack on the Sierra crest allows (maybe July).

Another Possibility

Something happened two thousand years ago in the Middle East. For some, there is a sacred text which tells it exactly, infallibly, as it happened. For others, it is something to be explored and understood historically. But maybe it happened like this:

Astronauts were sent off to visit outer space and see if there was any intelligent life. Although they found no signs of advanced civilizations they did, after a few generations, find a planet with life.

Seeing the state of affairs on this planet – poverty, terrible wealth disparities, and much smoting – they felt compelled to help. They caused a woman to become pregnant mysteriously and give birth to a child who embodied the very values they held dear – kindness, empathy, selflessness, honesty and generosity. They made a bit of a show of it – having their UFO shine in the sky brightly enough to lead some wise guys to a manger – so that it would get good coverage

And so it came to pass.

This Being was eventually killed, of course, as one would expect of someone who proclaimed that the wealthy should not be so wealthy. He was then beamed up.

Seems as plausible as other versions, no?

To some extent, this intervention was successful, in that people in subsequent generations who actually lived by the words and recorded deeds of this Being did much to imbue the planet with goodness. But earthlings being what they were, there were inevitably many (guys, mostly) who co-opted the symbology as a way of consolidating and expanding their wealth and power, and giving an excuse for even more smoting.

Infinitely sad.

…There’s actually a bit of a back story. This hadn’t been the astronauts’ first attempt to help. About a week earlier (by their calendar) they had tried something similar in another part of the planet. There, instead of creating a new Being, they just exerted mind control over an existing one. They picked their subject and, as he was sitting under a Bodhi tree not wearing a tin foil hat, took over. In this instance, too, the message was all about goodness, though they wrapped this into some existing cultural narratives involving sequential lives and such.  They got mixed results with this one, too.

Between these two interventions, they amused themselves by making large-scale art on the Andes mountains and introducing the Axolotl and Pangolin to the planet.

No movies were ever made about these Aliens, of course: no violence.

The Job

I was born into the golden age of The Job. I couldn’t imagine a different world. Adults had Jobs, I would have a Job. From this emerged all else.

I couldn’t have known that this was just a small moment in time, before and after which there was no such thing as a “Job.”

Only recently have people begun to acknowledge that the Job is rapidly disappearing. For a few decades, individuals lost their Jobs and had to scramble to make ends meet but didn’t realize this wasn’t about them, it was about the world changing.

There are some rearguard actions – for example, to try to get paid vacation for Uber drivers and such – but that does little to slow the demise of the Job.

The Job was born of the industrial revolution, when factory workers were needed. The scale of the enterprise also resulted in a few layers of management in addition to the assembly line workers. Nothing on this scale, with this regularity, had existed before. Before, there was agriculture and craft. Little else.

Because of the stability of factory work, employees (both blue-collar and white-collar) could expect the work to continue indefinitely. The employees had skills such that it benefited the management to keep the same people. Employers paid them a fixed amount, regularly. They had Jobs.

Jobs begat Jobs. Once everyone had a Job, businesses proliferated. People with Jobs could buy cars, houses, vacuum cleaners, radios, and insurance. They could pay for train fare, haircuts, dentists and dry cleaning. There were Jobs in all these new businesses.

And then it all stopped. Where a Job resulted in good income, the managers had an incentive to find cheaper ways to get it done – by off-shoring or automation. And anything you can do a computer can do better (with apologies to Irving Berlin.) If not now, by next week, certainly.

The access to all information at all times, via the Internet, meant that a task could be matched to a person directly and instantly, obviating the need for someone to have that Job. Through Uber, Task Rabbit, et al, Jobs are replaced by the gig economy. No more reliable, predicable income. Interestingly, this returns us to the very early days of the industrial revolution when people would just show up at the factory each day hoping to get a day’s work. So at either end of the Job economy is the gig economy.

But we are probably not going to return to the days of guilds, apprentices, and feudalism.

Something else is coming. What?

Gasoline

1. My car gets pretty good mileage: 241 yards per tablespoon. Right there, it is stunning. I think about this when I accelerate up the hill in front of Linda’s place. Just to hold that car from rolling back down the hill would take me and five strong friends (Don’t try it). I can’t even imagine how many people it would take to push the car 100 yards up that hill – at any speed. Yet with a teaspoon or two of gasoline my 2001 Civic positively frisks up that hill.

2. Say you need groceries, so you hop in the car and drive to the store. As soon as you get near the store, the car changes from an asset to a liability. Now you need to put it somewhere!! So we’ve paved 130 billion square feet for that, for our convenience. But that’s not the main issue. No, the main issue is that the car doesn’t need groceries – the car isn’t even allowed in the store! But most of the energy used was to get the car to the store. Your added weight was trivial (like 5%). Nearly all that energy was to move the car. Which doesn’t need groceries. And isn’t allowed into the store.

3. I watched cars crawling along 580 near Tracy during a morning commute recently (lucky me, I was headed the other way, toward the mountains). I looked for a car with two people in it, in vain. And, with the exception of pickups and the occasional sports car, every one of them was a 4-door. Excess capacity?

4. “Drive.” Quite an active verb for sitting in a comfy leather seat with a hand resting lightly on the steering wheel and a foot resting gently on the accelerator. “Driving” is about as energetic as watching TV.

The internal combustion engine is remarkable! But what a massive, disastrous, waste of fossil fuel is our dependence on cars. It is so a part of our culture that we (and I include myself) rarely think about it. Except when we think about climate change.

2a. Tangential (not specific to gasoline)…A medium-sized two-story house uses 1,000 square feet of land. The city streets and parking for this house use 5,000 square feet. When you start thinking this way you begin to see all the space devoted to cars, compared to space devoted to humans. Streets, parking, gas stations, auto repair, auto showrooms… There are many, many reasons this is not healthy for children and other living things (to resurrect and re-purpose a saying from 1967)

(Drawing is by Kaln Jilg)

What Right Do We Have?

None. But we have power.

I was looking out back this morning as a small bird flitted by. Thought again about how humans are altering (a very benign and gentle word for what humans are doing) the earth’s biosphere. We are rapidly making it inhospitable for many species. What right do we have to do that?

(I will eventually write a piece about short-term thinking because nearly everything bad in the human world could be attributed to short-term thinking. No one is intentionally working to degrade the earth. They are working to make things more convenient, or to be more amused, comfortable, secure or attractive, or to boost quarterly earnings. None of which lasts. Extinction lasts. Degradation of the biosphere is the cumulative long-term result of all of the things humans do because they desire something now, or tomorrow, or within the next few years. Oh. Oops. I just did a piece on short-term thinking, didn’t I?)

We have power. Too bad. If humanity wasn’t so powerful, humanity couldn’t be such a problem for everybody else on this planet.  But we are. Newts, bees, wild iris, rhinos and sharks – Ha!  Don’t make me laugh. Pathetic, powerless.

What right do we have? None. Yes, there are some who could point to some sacred text or other and find in it some ‘right’. I’m thinking here of the phrases in the common translations of the Bible that say something like mankind is supposed to take dominion over all the earth, to subdue it… But few people, even those who take the Bible quite literally, would interpret this as meaning we have been mandated to drive millions of species to extinction. Or that we even have a ‘right’ to.

The collective power of humanity is awe-inspiring. But nobody is in charge. Maybe that’s a good thing, considering that where some guy is in charge, some guy like Putin or Xi or Salman or Trump, the prospect is scary. But not having someone in charge means, generally, that the market is in charge. That’s even scarier. The market is notoriously short-sighted and the market doesn’t even see ‘externalities’ such as animals, plants, clean air and water, or genuine human well-being.

The beginning of hope is awareness. Awareness allows us to see the problem. From there, if we do not despair but instead find ways to help, comes hope. How, though, do we get past the problem that not much happens in this world that doesn’t result in short-term financial gain for someone? When I solve that one, I’ll get back to you…

The Wonder of it All

I was on a self-guided nature trail the other day, reading the “Interpretive Panel.” (I include the text below, should you care to read it.) I’m the kind of person who, by the end of the panel, has tears in his eyes at the wonder of it all – the way the myriad forms of life on this astounding planet work together to support and sustain one another.

I started walking again and the unbidden thought arose that Donald Trump (may he go in peace) wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about this. Would be bored in two seconds and simply could not, would not, understand why this matters. Of the many valid reasons one may have for despising that man, this perhaps is the one that speaks most intimately to me.

Maybe this obliviousness is related to empathy (see here)

Admittedly, politicians are usually not ecologists and maybe in general don’t think much about how earth works, but most would at least get it that it matters, and many could even be talked into policies that don’t destroy it.

RIPARIAN INTERPRETIVE PANEL: This habitat is called Riparian, which means “by the river.” The trees and shrubs that grow here require much more summer moisture than plants growing far from the stream. These trees shade the stream in summer. Because most of them lose their leaves in late fall, they let in light and warmth in winter. This keeps the water temperature at levels that provide optimal conditions for fish such as our local Steelhead and Coho Salmon. Red Alders are vital to the food cycle of forest life. Thousands of bacteria nodules cling to their roots and convert atmospheric nitrogen, useless to most organisms, into a form of nitrogen which all life uses to make protein. In autumn, alder leaves fall into the stream and decompose, providing food for the aquatic larva of mayflies, midges and stoneflies. Fish, lizards, salamanders, birds and bats eat the flies. Their droppings, rich in useful nitrogen, provide nutrients for plants and other animals, which then continue the recycling of nitrogen throughout the ecosystem.

CASA vs. Corporations

I am a volunteer CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate). You can look it up for more information, but basically, as a CASA volunteer I am paired with a youth in the foster care system. I help him by advocating in court and also by spending time with him to give him a stable person in his life. A boy in the foster care system has foster parents, an attorney, a case worker and a number of other adults. Since many of them change frequently, an adult who is a constant in their lives can be a big help.

So it is a positive role. But sometimes I feel like I am up against not only bad parenting, and a well-intentioned but rule-bound foster care system, but up against the entire might of corporate America.

I don’t blame the CASA organization for this – there really is nothing they can do about it, and ‘they’ – at least many of them – wouldn’t even see it as a problem.

I’ve been CASA to a few youngsters by now and I see the grip that corporations have on them from an early age: Food comes from McDonald’s. Fun comes from Apple and game-making corporations. Desirable clothing has logos on it.

I want their time with me to be time they get to do what they want to do, and get to have some autonomy and ‘authorship’ in their lives. Very often their home environment is controlling, and too often critical. I try to listen respectfully, try to really hear what they are saying, try to respond to what they say and what they want – also something too often missing from their lives.

What one kid wanted, when we would do outings, was for me to drive him to McDonald’s while he played Fortnite on his iPhone, pick up McNuggets and Coca-Cola, then take him home after he had finished eating. Sometimes he wanted to go shoot hoops with me, at a public playground – those were the good days.

This is hard for me. I rather despise McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Apple, and whoever makes Fortnite. They are vast, powerful, multinational corporations. Through advertising and through just ubiquity in the culture, they become normalized. The people who consume their products don’t think about the quarter of a trillion dollars spent each year by corporations in the U.S. to insidiously manipulate people’s emotions so that the people do what the corporations want them to do. So that the corporations can show growth in their quarterly earnings report.

There is food that doesn’t come from a corporation. There are ways to play and have fun that aren’t video games. Clothes without logos work just fine. But it is not my job to change the youth’s relationship to popular culture and consuming. It is my job to just give him a connection to an adult who is caring, and who is a stable presence in his life. With the boy mentioned above, I sometimes offered alternatives when he said he wanted to go to McDonald’s. He was a good sport about it, but always chose McDonald’s. I did what he wanted.

I do think it would be fine – since I was paying and am the adult here – if I said “Today, let’s try the hamburger at this other place.” This wouldn’t be ignoring what he wanted, it would be me simply expressing that I, too, have a right to an opinion and perhaps modeling the turn-taking, compromising and negotiating that is part of a healthy adult relationship. These kids have often had no power and I probably go too far to make sure they experience some autonomy. I do, sometimes, override their instinctive desires – brainwashing at play here – under the theory that it is good for a kid to experience different things. They probably don’t even know that anything else exists. There is some value even in showing them that there are alternatives.

I suppose that these brands represent continuity and stability in a life sorely lacking in same. This is something for me to be aware of. Still, now that I have written this, I think I should gently insist on the non-corporate option more often…

Empathy Pyramids

First, the word “empathy.” I use it more and more, to stand in for the sense of oneness with, the sense of being the same as, another. We do not feel superior to someone who we empathize with.

An instant ago in human evolution (that is hundreds, or thousands, of years ago) we personally knew those in our community.  We cared about hardships among those we knew.  This is part of what community is – mutual empathy and caring. It makes community work. Concern for those who are part of our community has been an essential survival trait for humans. Time was, humans didn’t much feel empathy for anyone outside the tribe.

As technology (starting with written language, sailing ships, etc.), has brought distant people closer, a wonderful and essential thing has happened: we have developed a capacity for empathy and caring for people we don’t even know – who are not part of our immediate community.  Without this, every region of the world would probably be in a constant state of warfare. I mean, even more so than now.

In the past, the known part of the world was the universe, and distant people were utterly foreign to the point of being nearly mythological. But now we know that we live on a tiny blue dot in the vastness of space. And we know that we are really the same.

For some reason (just the kind of person I am) I visualize a person’s empathy as a pyramid with oneself at the center. (OK, ‘cone’ is a more accurate word, but I like ‘pyramid’ – more Egyptian sounding.) It is sort of a graph, with the width being the distance – in terms of outward difference – between self and others. Geographic distance is certainly an aspect of this. The height is the sense of empathy. When I first thought of this, it was in terms of liberals and conservatives [Confession – I’m a liberal, so liberals come off looking good in this essay – I welcome any respectful disagreement and discussion.] It struck me that liberals – in general –  seem to have more empathy for those who are quite different from themselves. Conservatives – in general – seem to watch out for those closer to them, in various ways. Seems a very fundamental difference. So this led to two versions of the pyramid:

What makes me think it looks like this? Because it seems to explain a number of political positions.

Conservatives value individualism and free enterprise, are more comfortable with the idea that competition is the natural order, are more willing to support war, more suspicious of foreigners or people who are different, more wary of immigration. Family values, patriotism.  I think all these indicate less broad empathy.

Liberals tend to support equal rights – of all kinds, are slower to war and more curious about cooperatives and collaboration. Probably liberals read more novels and travel more! Generalizations, of course, but I think they are valid ones. It just seems from all this that liberals probably have more empathy, broadly, as I have described it.

Novels are the way that I think I have expanded my circle of empathy. A novel allows you to live as someone else for a while, sometimes a person utterly different. Other narrative forms can do this, but most of them are quick – in a novel I can inhabit another person’s life for a long time.

It is not realistic to expect this ‘pyramid’ to be completely flat. Evolution predisposes us to a tall, narrow pattern. Living things want to propagate their genes. Children are best for this – carrying 50% of our genes. Other relatives are next, with varying amounts of our genes. Historically, the larger village or tribe would be comprised of more distant relatives – also sharing some genetic material with us – and the rest of the world… not. A person watches out for those who are genetically close because that improves the survival of one’s genes. Empathy is a great way to facilitate that. And we form reciprocal relationship with people we actually know – I help you when you need it, you help me when I need it.

Still, I think flatter is better. The alternative is a competitive world. Our culture, and the money economy, discourage a flattening of this pyramid: individualism and self-reliance require people to buy more stuff. Sharing doesn’t boost GDP or make corporations rich.

More recently, I had a (bitter) laugh thinking about the pyramid for Mr. Trump. It illustrates the absolute tragedy of that man’s world view. Sure, I could be wrong about some of this, but not all.

This assumes he is capable of empathy at all, and some intelligent, knowledgeable people doubt he is.

A Close Shave

Written in 2007 about an incident in 1984

I had lots of plans for my vacation in Japan, and getting a haircut wasn’t on the list.  I’d been in Japan only a week, but that haircut just hadn’t gotten taken care of in the rush before I left, and it was needed.  It was October, and darkening late in the afternoon when I noticed the barber shop near my budget ryokan on the fringes of the old Higashi Chayamachi geisha district. 

This wasn’t easy for me.  I was alone in Japan, a country I’d never been to before.  I wasn’t even close to getting over the foreignness of it all yet.  That meant that I looked at every little thing with fresh eyes, which I loved, but also that every minute I felt awkward and conspicuous.  I was an outsider and I didn’t want to intrude.  As I looked at it from across the narrow street, that drab little neighborhood barber shop seemed as exotic to me as an active geisha house.  But I stepped in.

It was a quaint shop, well-used but clean and functional.  I suppose he asked me how I wanted my hair and I pantomimed something.  Or did he show me a magazine and I pointed at a picture?  I don’t recall for sure – it was over twenty years ago.  I wasn’t fussy: “Shorter” is usually how I answer here when they ask. 

After the haircut he indicated “shave?”.  Although I had shaved that morning, I said yes.  It just came out.  Just for the adventure of it, I suppose.  Some people climb Everest, others bungee jump in New Zealand.  What the hell, I could get a shave in Kanazawa.

Kanazawa is on the back side of Japan, far from the usual Tokyo-Kyoto axis and not so many foreigners go there.  When I left San Francisco I had given friends and family only the vaguest itinerary.  I am quite sure Kanazawa wasn’t on it.

The old neighborhood was quiet.  Shades covered the window.  It was just myself and the barber.  He tilted me back, lathered me up, and stropped his razor.  Of course: I should have known it would be a straight razor.  I felt a trickle of apprehension – I’d seen Dressed To Kill – and shifted in the chair to let off some tension.  Could I change my mind now?

This was very intimate.  No one had ever shaved me before.  In fact, I’d never quite understood how a straight razor actually worked.  Why didn’t it just peel off a layer of skin, kind of like peeling a potato?  The concept was unclear to me.  But his work was deft, and his razor glided smoothly over my cheeks – I was in the hands of a master.  I imagined that my face was going to be smoother than at any time since puberty.  I was starting to relax.

Then he had the blade at my throat.  I felt a surge of panic and an urge to thrust away his arms and burst out of the chair.  I willed myself not to make some sudden involuntary jerk that cut my own throat.

No one knew where I was, other than “somewhere in Japan”.  I was in a very foreign country in a tiny barber shop on a back street of a fairly obscure city.  The nearest person I knew was 10,000 miles away.  I was lying on my back, with my head tilted back, the better to expose my throat to his blade.  The war crossed my mind.  This man was the right age.  Sure, the war was a long time ago, but still… These were crazy thoughts, and I tried to push them away.  It was excruciating not to act.  I willed my attention away from my throat, to my hands and fingers, and concentrated on opening and closing my hands, to dispel tension.  I felt a tremendous shudder building, willed myself to be still, be calm, told myself how absurd I was being. 

Move your fingers.  That’s right.  This man is giving you a nice haircut and a shave.  He is friendly.  He seems happy to welcome this foreigner into his little shop, and eager to do a good job for you.  Little shudders are still passing through my body as he slides his razor across my throat, but the panic is waning.  The quiet and outside dark that a moment ago seemed sinister now just start to feel peaceful and autumnal. 

It is evident the meticulous care he is taking as he performs this quite personal service for me. As he completes the last deft and gentle touches I start to feel a real warmth toward this man, a kind of love.  By not slitting my throat and throwing my limp dead body in the Asano river he has earned my love.  Admittedly, this is setting the bar for earning love pretty low, but in that moment it is enough.

He runs a hot damp cloth over my face and neck, and I am acutely aware of how civilized, really, people are.  Here’s this odd foreign galoot – the old enemy in fact – stumbling into his traditional little barber shop and he receives me with all the respect and deference he has, and as much friendliness as he can, given that I know about eleven words in his language.  He does his best job, a true professional, though what does it matter to him, really?  He’ll never see me again.

Not murdering me isn’t asking a lot.  In fact loads have people have done the same, come to think of it, without tapping into this well of brotherly love in me.  But this particular way of not murdering me was so civilized, and spoke so eloquently of the capacity for people to accept each other and be generous to each other that it moved me deeply.  I left that shop feeling a deep peace, and a hopefulness about the natural desire of people of different cultures to be kind and trusting toward one another.

One year later, I moved to Japan.  When people asked me what I loved about the country, why I was moving there, that haircut and shave didn’t make the list.  Once again.  But I was changed when I walked out of that shop.  That weird swing from primal fear to primal human connectedness broke down a barrier for me.  The foreignness remained strange and wonderful for the rest of my trip, but I didn’t feel quite such the outsider.  I didn’t see myself so much the distant observer, and I started assuming friendliness and welcome in people, until proven otherwise.  That late October afternoon in an old barber shop changed my relationship to a whole country.