north country public radio – “winter reads” program

Winter Reading Call-in: Thursday, December 1, 7-9 pm

NCPR’s annual holiday and winter reading list call-in. Hosted by Ellen Rocco, Chris Robinson and John Ernst, the show solicits listeners suggestions for great books–new and classic–for gift-giving or deep winter reading. If you’d like to share suggestions in advance, email

Thanks to some very mean-looking men I employ to show up at peoples’ doors with copies of my book Highwater in their meaty hands “suggesting” it be given a read, I made this winter reading list! Tune into the show this Thursday night.  You can listen to learn about other authors and books, too – I promise no one will hurt you.

happy holidays, now let’s talk about the end of the world

Not long ago my brother declared that he used an axe in favor of a chainsaw, which uses gasoline.  “Oh come on,” said my father dismissively, “let them car pool in L.A.”  In other words, what good is going to come out of such a paltry sacrifice?  One man wielding an axe instead of a chainsaw isn’t going to affect anything.  Having a few million people share cars will affect something.  My brother and I were flabbergasted.  (Yes, I intentionally use that word.)  This was exactly the kind of wrong-thinking which prevented real progress in the recycling, reduction & sustainability movement!  We grumbled about our father and how he didn’t seem to get that we were trying to save the world.  We figured he was older, and older people just don’t get it.

A little older now myself since that axe-versus-chainsaw day, I realize something.  Both my brother and my father are right.  But they are right for different reasons.

At this point, whether or not you are environmentally responsible is not going to save the world.  What it’s going to save is your community.  Maybe your region.  Sustainable energy sources, slow food, and reduced carbon emissions are much more workable on a smaller scale.  We seem to confuse the fact that we are connected by technology with a reality of global problems needing global solutions.  The best adage I have seen in recent years is “Think Globally, Act Locally.”  If everybody starts acting a certain way in a community and sets an example followed by the rest of the communities, then there is global impact.  But policing the world and seeking to create global change from the outside in will continue falling on deaf ears.  The reason is because people don’t operate that way.  We deal best with what we can see and hear and touch, and recently that’s been confused with the extended reach technology affords us.

There’s been a lot of talk about the environment and the economy and the looming climate crisis.  I’ve read thousands of pages, talked with dozens of people, attended conferences and consortiums, watched hours and hours of documentaries.

Throughout all of it, though, one fact mothers the rest:  We are running out of oil.  Oil has been the change in the world which has shaped each of us, and the lack of it will shape us once again.  Oil is responsible for the cars we drive, the planes we fly in, the siding on our homes, the toothbrushes we use, the plastics, the tools, even the clothes we wear and the jewelry which adorns us.  Oil has given rise to the “life of leisure.”

For about 55,000 years, let’s say, human beings were “occupied” with survival.  There was something to do every moment of the day, be it gathering firewood, building shelter, hunting for food, tending to children, and so on.  It’s been roughly 5,000 years since the dawn of civilization, 2,300 years since the first libraries of Alexandria, and 200 years since oil has entered our lives.  It’s those last 200 years that have seen our population boom from 2 billion people to 7 billion people.  So it’s not “civilization” itself that is the culprit, and it’s certainly not education, or the ability to read and communicate.  It’s oil that has so drastically changed us.  And a boom is always followed by a bust.

This is not to take an alarmist’s perspective and say that we will have a catastrophic reduction in the population.  Population itself is not even all that bad, and “over population” is an idea which bears multiple interpretations.  If you were to take all the people in the world and scoop them up, we’d all fit into a state roughly the size of Ohio, standing side by side.  Or, if everyone in the world were suddenly to remain still, that is, not move beyond where they can get to by foot, to buy things locally, the work locally; to remain in their community, things would seem to get suddenly very quiet.

It’s all of the coming and going.  It’s all of the travel.  Right now some 60,000 planes are in the air above the U.S.  There are millions of cars on the road.  Industry is pumping away.  TV dinners and Caesar salads contain ingredients gathered and shipped over 1,500 miles.  Goods are shipped to us from the other side of the world.  They are hauled in by transatlantic ocean tankers which bilge out invasive species like water milfoil and emerald ash bores into our rivers.  Our Wal-Marts and our Targets and Home Depots are packed with goods brought there from tens of thousands of miles away.  Our mail crisscrosses the globe.  Remember the movie Superman?  When he gets upset that Lois Lane dies and decides to fly around the earth so hard it spins it in the other direction?  All those overlapping contrails he makes while bolting across the sky, forming rings around the planet, that’s us, and that’s what we do every day.

Recycling your cans is not going to change the world.  Eating organic pasta is not going to change the world.  One person, unless he is a billionaire philanthropist, is not going to impact much on a global scale.  The aggregate effect is mythical.  People just don’t work that way – it’s impossible to get such mass-coordination – too many people don’t care, or don’t believe, or think something or someone is going to come and save them.  Right now the developing nations of the world are growing at a geometric rate.  The need for food on planet earth is now expected to double by 2050.  Urban agriculture and alternative fuels may offset some of that for a short while, but these countries are doing exactly what America taught them to do.  Over the last hundred years, we’ve successfully exported our myth to nearly every developing country.  We’ve shared and endorsed our myth of infinite growth, and the leisure life of a little king.  Countries everywhere have growing subcultures which mimic our attitudes and governments which envy our stature.

And yet, we are aging.  While our birthrates are down, the birthrates of India are up.  And China is fast becoming one of the super powers in the world.  We’re not alone on this planet, and our position is not fixed.  Things are changing.

We are one of many countries (figures range from 33 to 38) which have peaked in oil production and are on the decline.  There are only a few more countries left to hit that peak mark and start down the slope after us.  Every other fuel-type has either turned up energy-negative, or still requires the product of oil production to run it.  Nuclear fusion energy is a fascinating idea, but the enormous plants built to harness the power of smashing light atoms together require tons of work, and millions of tons of oil for fusion to ever replace our oil habit.  The same goes for solar energy and hydrocarbon – these “alternative” fuel sources all require energy to produce them. Down in Texas right now, gas mining towns are going boom and bust, boom and bust as wells begin with a robust production and quickly dry up.  There is not nearly enough natural gas in Texas or in the Marcellus shale or anywhere else to supplant our use of oil.  There have been no new significant oil discoveries since 1969.  We’re so desperate we’re even blowing up mountains, removing their tops to use huge draglines to get down inside and haul out the coal so we use less labor.

Blowing up mountains…yes, it’s come to that.

With all that said, here are a few predictions and some advice for the end of the world.

  • 1.  The world is not going to end.  It’s going to change dramatically, as it did at the advent of oil production.  That production is now in decline, and we have so many more people to support it staggers the mind.  Yet, things will not come to an overnight halt.  Populations will not be so decimated that it’s something from a Stephen King novel.

If you live in the inner city, chances are, sometime in the next decade, you will grab your basketball and roller blades and emigrate the heck out of there.  The poor, the infirm, the aged, and the inner-city dweller will be hit the hardest with supply-shortage.  Food, medicine, and clean water will become scarcer and more expensive as economic stagflation persists.

  • 2.  There is no solving the economic crises in the United States.  It is only going to get worse.  Gas prices are moving along right now what is called “The bumpy plateau.”  Price goes up, and people buy less gas, so demand goes down, price goes down.  People start buying more gas again, and price goes back up.  Only this time, it goes up a little higher than the last spike.

The problem with automobiles is not that they use gas.  The problem with automobiles is that we use them.  More fuel efficient vehicles actually worsen the problem.  There is something called the Jevins Paradox which says that the more a commodity uses a resource efficiently, the more that commodity gets used, and the more the resource is consumed.  Our automobile culture (and that’s what it is, an aspect of culture, not a “reality” or a “right”) arose in the 1950s, co-occurring with the dawn of the fast-food age, the Interstate transportation, and “leisure byways” created for people to drive aimlessly around and look at things, thus living the “American dream.”  Almost one in every two people in the U.S. has a car.  This giant monster of energy, an internal combustion engine creating miniature explosions, powered by oil and gas (refined oil), made of steel and plastic (more oil) and tires (more oil) and glass (yep, oil in the resin in the windshield) – this whole thing just to drive our squishy little bodies around (we’re made of 70% water) to get ourselves from point A to B.  It’s just wild when you think about it.

Because of the oil crises, there will be a food crisis.  We’re not the only ones using oil to do stuff, so are the farmers and the truck drivers (talking that Caesar salad those 1,500 miles).  As gas prices rise, the farmer and trucker and everybody else on the way to the grocery store will get pinched, and then at the store you’ll see prices rises, too.  They already have been and are, of course, and there have been no real-wage increases to match them since the 1980s.  (A “real wage” is calculated without the influence of inflation.  We have the illusion of making more money in part because we’ve been getting cheaper and cheaper products from what is essentially the distribution arm of the People’s Republic of China, but not because our salaries are actually expanding.  And we’re so convinced we need all of this stuff we’re willing to get trampled and pepper-sprayed in the name of Black Friday.)

  • 3.  It all comes down to the basics.  What do you need?  You need food, you need shelter, you need clothing.  That’s it.  For 55,000 years, this is what people did.  I’m not saying we’re going to go back to some rudimentary, cave-like existence.  We will successfully import our wisdom and evolution into a new world, but it’s essential to remember the basics.  Keeping the basics in perspective will help prevent overstressing.

The sun comes up, the earth is here, what more do you need to know?  Everything else is extra.  The details.  The flourishes.  Who we are, what color our skin is, what our sexual orientation is, what religion we practice, all just the spice of life.  When we focus on these details too much, we lose sight of the bigger picture.  When we let our greed get us carried away and mask it as “progress for the greater good,” we start to crumble.  Success and happiness and stability will always come from within, and from helping one another.  Every gadget, game, trinket and shiny new object are just extras.  They are not essential.   Losing them will cost you nothing.

  • 4.  At the same time, even the most austere among us may secretly fear losing certain liberties of our modern, technically advanced, material-rich world.  Who wouldn’t?  I love movies and the internet and my power tools.  I had a relatively healthy childhood and dreamed of science-fiction things like “telecommunicating,” which is now a reality we take for granted.  I love the modern world, but I don’t need it.  I’m generation X and grew up before cell phones and the internet and high def.  I won’t miss it too much.  But other people need the modern world.  They need the support and the medicine and the services.  The way we will tend to them is by giving up much of our own leisure time.

Leisure time is a euphemism for idle time.  For 55,000 plus years, we kept busy with survival and progress.  In today’s world, there is a phenomenon unlike any other:  people have to find things to do.  Sure, we all have to work and we’re basically active, but we pack our elderly away in homes and leave our infirm and disabled to sit for hours a day doing nothing.  We’ve prolonged childhood and have enabled our youth to gadabout for years longer.  We’ve created vacuums; existential, spiritual, and spatial, that we fill with every sort of distraction.  Studies show that children today are the proud owners of neural pathways and connections which are different from their predecessors, since the children’s brains are forming amid the ultra-connected world of texting and internet and instant gratification.  Our brains, too, rewired to adapt to the idle time we’ve created for ourselves.  Inherently, we want something to do.  We need something to do.  We are ultimately healthier and happier with purpose in our lives.

  • 5.  The community will become everything.  We will trade with neighbors.  We will build together to compensate for immigration due to food shortages and potential coastal flooding.  Before even that, we will be forced to find more ways to remain active and afloat that exists much closer to home.  We will become more involved in the growing, harvesting and distribution of local foods.  We will be forced to find alternative ways to heal ourselves and our sick.  And we’ll be surprised at what we find, surprised to relearn so much of what we already have in us.  We will become better, more capable, more resourceful than we ever have before.  We will stop trying to “fix” things so we can continue to exist with the same cultural paradigm of limitless growth and progress for everyone.  Our new frontier will become charted by a spiritual map as we relearn means to be alive on planet earth, and how to find success, peace, and happiness in ways far more rewarding than anything we’ve done to date.

That’s all I have for now.

the tree of life: faith restored (in american cinema)

The Tree of Life now available on DVD and Blu-ray

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life washes over you like the ocean it portrays.  Unlike much of the current garrison of American movies, it doesn’t feel the need to explain itself.  Hefty, almost choking gobs of exposition are not present as they were in, say, the much touted Inception.  Nor is this minimalism pretentious, as it may feel during a viewing of a wistful, art house film that mistakes a lack of plot for clever artistic license.

The Tree of Life has a plot.  That it takes its time getting there and works itself out as much in the viewer’s mind as it does in the narrative shouldn’t be confused for being obtuse.  It is not.  It is, in fact, a very simple film.

It can be certainly be more challenging to review a good film, or a great film, and The Tree of Life courts the category of the latter.  To review a bad film is easy.  Spoilers are admissible, because you’re warning people to avoid the fare.  For the most part, too, a bad film has a universal property: somehow we’re all programmed to recognize the smell of doodie.  With a good film, the appreciation can be more personal.

First, though, there are some universally recognizable traits:  Within moments of Tree’s opening, you know you are in good hands.  And after it unspools for the first few minutes, you realize that it is not another film which rides the conveyor belt through several “punched up” moments – it’s a film where each moment is going to mean something, each moment is going to count; each time and place in the picture is where you want to be.

When reviewers note that a film is “stunning,” here it holds true.  Malick even ventures, frugally, into computer imaging territory, and the effects are seamless.  I wish I could tell you where the spots of CGI are so expertly placed, but this is a review of a good film, and not supposed to share stories out of school.

What I can say is that the typical bridge between Act I and Act II, called “plot point one” is used in a way few films have ever dared attempt.  Rather than a glib “twist of the action” to push us into the second act, Malick forges a novel approach.  The endeavor brings to mind other maverick filmmakers and their rule-bending successes, like Paul Thomas Anderson beginning There Will Be Blood with a meditative, dialog-free first ten minutes (which is utterly engrossing when, according to the experts, it’s exactly what you’re not supposed to do).

Rather than merely “turn” the action for us, Malick draws us deeper.  He allows the medium to approach something which transcends it, and something which film is capable of doing, but rarely ever does; provide an almost religious experience.

Malick grants the audience the gift of their own intelligence and insight.  Events are often suggested with an economic visual poetry, i.e., the mother wears a nice outfit with bright lipstick in a single shot, meaning that times are good, that she is going out for dinner, perhaps, with the father.  Major events are often provided for as subtly; an aquatic creature with a long tail and small arms and legs represents the leap from water to land in evolution.

In Tree, you hear the character’s thoughts, often with more than one layer.  These are the strata of consciousness.  Sometimes, yes, whispering voice-overs can be a bit of an eye-roller, but here, with a little concentration on the sentiment they convey, and how it connects to your own life, your own grasp for meaning, they resonate.

It’s amazing how may “magic hour” shots there are in the film – whole scenes.  It’s been said that Malick prefers that low, side light of the setting sun to any other aesthetic.  Here there is no shortage – sunsets abound, light cascades behind a subject forming a corona, and also white curtains billow, figures twirl and gesture with their hands, evoking sails, or fish.

The characters in Malick’s film have an equal share with the pictorial storytelling and the soundscapes which form the body of the piece.  The Texan family depicted doesn’t come more to the surface than a creature just beneath the surface of the water.  We are invited in, to their homes, to their pain, even into their thoughts, and yet we somehow exist there in shared space with them.  There is no overpowering of the actors or the story of their characters, and Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain (likely under Malick’s judicious direction) are there-but-not-there, windows for us to look through, to see something more, or to perhaps mirror back to ourselves.  And actor Hunter McCracken looks so eerily like a young Jim Caviezel, I had to wonder for a moment if there was some connection between The Tree of Life and Malick’s 1998 The Thin Red Line that was intentional.

There is not.

After Days of Heaven in 1978, the writer-director took a 20 year hiatus from filmmaking.  The Thin Red Line was his two-decades-later follow up, and was an emotional, poetic powerhouse.  2005’s The New World may have missed the mark, but The Tree of Life delivers exactly what it feels like Malick is capable of – reaching out for the most expansive and the most intimate concepts, and combining them into one film with the balance of restraint and alacrity that one imagines marks the true seasoned artist.

just published – “coming up in the new hollywood” (with the lake champlain weekly)

Imagine you’re working as a production assistant on a big-budget Hollywood film. You’re struggling to make it in the movie business and you’re dead broke. You realize there’s a ton of cash lying around on the set.  Obviously it’s immoral, illegal, and dangerous to even think about taking the money, but you’re desperate. And not only that, you’ve got this dazzling screenplay you’ve written, and you’re hungry get it made.  What do you do?  You plan a heist, of course.