Thursday, September 30, 2010

I Talk to Walls

I am an English teacher. I talk to walls.

Yesterday, I spent about fifteen minutes covering the concept of the “mini-outline” in Honors Nine. For those of you who don’t know (if you’re ex-honors nine students, I don’t want to know!), a mini-outline is the notes you make before you write an essay, about fifteen words if you need three examples, which you then evaluate, prioritize, and turn into your thesis. Basically, it is thinking about what you want to say and writing it down before you begin, thus reducing the spewing and flailing that can mark a timed essay. We then moved into the idea of a thesis and following the thesis through your paper, thus creating a logical piece and a happy reader (me). There is, I tell them, nothing that makes a reader more grouchy—and thus more liable to bad grades—than having to hunt through your paper for your ideas.
While I was talking, everyone was squirming. “This is soooooo Middle school” was the vibe. “I can’t believe we are going over this again. We did this in fifth grade.” “We know how to write.” Squirm, squirm, squirm. Rustle, rustle, rustle. “Everybody got it?” I asked. Heads nod. “So, when you write your essays tomorrow, you all have to use the mini-outline. We all understand?” “Yes. So Middle School.
Today, we head down to the computer lab. On the way out the door, I hand everyone their essay prompts. Take your stuff—we’ll be there the whole block. Backpacks and binders crash into each other as they head downstairs. In the lab, I write:
Two Quotations”

Three minutes later, a voice asks “What’s a mini-outline?”

I talk to walls.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Harvest Moon Watch

It’s been one of those weeks-from-hell that appear occasionally in our lives. I had a CEA meeting (deadly on its own) on Tuesday, a poorly attended Open House on Wednesday, and a meeting with the fraternity that keeps me awake by bellowing, shrieking, and a pulsing beat on Thursday. Add in a dying chicken in the kitchen (can’t leave her out in the rain!), a pile of tomatoes that have to become salsa RIGHT NOW, and calling the police with noise complaints almost every evening for two weeks, as the OSU students came back and have nothing better to do than play a round or two of Beer Pong every evening, and we were fried by Friday. But it was the Harvest Moon and we had a plan.

Every year, Mark and I eat dinner at Chip Ross Park on the September full moon, also known as the Harvest Moon. It’s that huge, orange glowing moon that is so bright farmers can harvest their fields by it—hence the name. It rises above the Cascades at about 7:30 here in Corvallis. We arrive around 5:30 and walk the loop over the hills first. Chip Ross Park was the first place I found when I arrived here as a new teacher and it took me until late September to be able to leave my classroom before 7 PM for one afternoon. So, when I walk the trail, I remember those first few months of teaching—the stuffy rooms, the slight panic in my stomach every morning that today I would not be prepared at all for classes, the joy of having my own assignments, not someone else’s, to grade and evaluate. Mark pauses on the top of the hill to look out over the city and hunt for our house (which you cannot see). The first rain has usually fallen and the woods smell damp once more. The hills are golden; the trees still green; the sky clear with a slight haze on the horizon. Happy dogs run past.

After the walk, we haul our dinner out and spread out on one of the tables near the parking lot. We watch people come and go, eat, read, make a few notes, check the time. It is quiet, except for crickets and something rustling in the bushes. Deep breaths. We talk about harvest plans, not neighborhood association issues. Slowly, the sun sets. We begin to watch the horizon. Mark checks the time for the moonrise before we leave, so we are eagerly waiting, facing east. Every year, we talk about where it came up last year—behind the tree? Balanced on the peak there? Where did we wait? How long does it take to appear above the mountains? Where is it?! We are always, always, surprised. Somehow, it slips up north of where we are staring. One of us catches a glimpse of light—there it is! It moves upward, sliding through the clouds and haze, golden light in tree branches, huge on the horizon, slowly shrinking to normal size as it rises. We watch, quietly, until it is fully risen and the parking lot is dark. The last few visitors are leaving; we hear people calling their dogs over, cars starting. Silence settles over us as well. We pack up the leftovers and head for the Ark, drive down the hill into town and our lives once more.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Peak Oil

Mark came home from Sunbow last week with 42 pounds of tomatoes and the pronouncement “Harry thinks we’re about to enter the Long Emergency.” I sighed. The Long Emergency, which comes from a book with the same title, is the phrase leftists use to describe what is going to happen to our civilization when we run out of oil. Some people see great doom and chaos—a return to primal living, no food, no laws, no coffee—while others try to be more cheerful. Life will be like living during the Great Depression, only with Global Warming involved. Having read The Grapes of Wrath with my class last year, that sounds bad enough. I have to admit, I worry about the Long Emergency quite a bit. I’d like to think that we are a mature enough society to move into the changes ahead gracefully but I’m afraid that we are all going to go kicking and screaming into the abyss.

Three or four years ago, our house was on the “Eco-Home Tour on Wheels” organized by NWEI, not because we are Eco-Saints, but because it was my idea in the first place. There were three houses: Margi showed people her new solar power array, Maureen talked about organic household cleaners and composting, and I talked about buying in bulk and living in a small house. Most people came to our house because I was interviewed by the GT (not that hard a feat, to be honest) and they wanted to see the color of our kitchen and meet Gracie the chicken, who was featured in the photograph. It was fun. I showed off glass jars of beans, extolled the virtues of a 625 square foot house, and sent them off to watch Mark turn the compost. They asked the usual questions. “How do I remember to take a bag to the store?” “Where the herbs raised here?” “How old is that fig tree? It’s huge!” One man, however, asked me “What do you miss most?” I looked at him, totally baffled. “ Miss most?” I asked. “Yeah,” he persisted. “Nothing,” I said. He moved on to contemplate the compost.

What do we miss most? I realized, later, that he thought we were a pair of Voluntary Simplicity Gurus—those people who give up their huge houses and third car and vacations in Mexico because they have seen the Evil in their consumptive ways then write books about it, quoting Thoreau and Gandhi and Jesus. Not us. We never made it to that level of consumption. This little house is as good as it has ever been and that’s okay. I’ve been practicing “Voluntary Simplicity” all of my life—other people call it being poor, but having a strong community. I have always bought my beans and flour in bulk and stored them in the same jars—those three flour jars came from my year of working at Shop and Save right after college. I have always bought my clothes and decorations at thrift shops, loved the local library, rode my bike and walked everywhere. I believe in bartered services and a 24 hour waiting period before any new purchase. I’ve always had a savings account. I’m basically cheap—and now those practices are “green” and hip.

What have I changed in the past fifteen years, as the Long Emergency weighs more heavily on my mind? What do I miss? Ok. I no longer drive to the mountains to hike alone. I can’t justify the gas consumption. And I have friends who would love to go. I no longer hike alone; I miss the quiet. I worry about flying. I used to like flying—peering down on the earth’s patterns, eating weird food, arriving across the country in one afternoon. I no longer enjoy that. I rarely fly. But what I really miss most is the not knowing, the casual decision-making about daily consumption. It’s a “paper or plastic” debate in my head every day and the question really is—do you need this at all? And, does it really matter what I do?

For years, we knew we would run out of oil someday—but it was a long way off. Gas was a dime a gallon when I was a child. A dime. No one thought we’d run out anytime soon. Now we know. We are going to run out of oil. Soon. We may have already passed the peak of oil production; clearly, as the gulf oil disaster shows us, we have passed the peak of easy oil production. Scientists debate the year, but not the fact. We will run out. Oil is going to get much more expensive and the cheap food and trinkets we buy everyday are no longer going to be there. Happy Meals are not going to exist. I know this. Technology may help us, but it will not save us. Individual actions make us feel better and they can remind us to remember the larger picture, but they will not save us. We, as a society, need to drastically change our relationship with energy and consumption.

So, what do we do? Do we begin to make changes now—institute a carbon tax, which will raise the price of many things, and so reduce consumption, end the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and use that money to build the infrastructure like wind turbines and public transport to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, tax McMansions and SUVs so that they no longer dominate the landscape and increase consumption just by the sheer size of the space to be filled? Or do we just go blithely on, as we have, and allow the world to collapse around us. Say to our grandchildren, when they ask—why didn’t you do something?—that it was more fun to drive a big truck to the grocery store than walk. It was easier to allow Democrats and Republicans to posture across the aisle than to address the complex issues around the limits of fossil fuels. To wait for another country – India, China-- to do something first so that the United States economy would not suffer. I’d like for us to go gracefully into this new world, working together to make the needed changes so that our society survives and thrives in a post-oil world. I read books about car free cities and other designs for civilization. And they give me hope. Then I hear —when Amy Goodman interviewed a young man from the Maldives who asked “If you knew that your actions were killing someone—would you continue?”—or I look at another huge, jacked up truck cruising down my street, driven by a college kid, and I don’t know.