Monday, July 9, 2012

Sitting in the Lap of Luxury

Ahhh . . . we are back in what we think of as civilization. On our tenth day without power, it came back. We had prepared for this by emptying, turning off, and cleaning the frig, and throwing the circuit breaker that has the AC on it. We'd had power for a few minutes on day two; then the transformer across the street caught fire, and we all went out again, and stayed out. My theory is that a dozen or a hundred houses in our neighborhood suddenly started grabbing power all at once, for air conditioning especially (it's been 100 degrees here for several days - in the shade). It was awful not to have fans to cool the house down at night.  Even if you had, there were nights when the temperature stayed above 80.  That's different for us.

Many of us who fancy ourselves educated people, spiritual people with better things to do, confessed to severe TV withdrawal by the time it was done. Basically, I wanted to see the NBC evening news, as always, and hear them talk about our dire, desperate straits here in mid-America. I saw that tonight.  It has been the warmest year in recorded history here in America.  The drought has farmers despairing. This is not just our problem; those of us enjoying the luxuries of the modern age have changed the climate for the entire planet.  No one can think now that it's a theoretical question.

Saturday night I watched the news, then something called "The Closer" that features a histrionic petite blonde Southern Belle as a chief of police. Not feminism's finest representative; though she does have moxie. Personally, I think you can't be a cute, emotional blonde and be taken seriously.  It's fantasy, after all.

 Then I watched a House rerun that I had never seen. It was gorgeous in high-def on our flat-screen TV. I liked it so much I watched another one.  I went to bed replete.  Gorged on 3 1/2 hours of TV, less than the average American kid watches on a typical day.

This whole thing has been a wake-up for me, what Buddhists call a dharma gate, meaning an opportunity to realize the truth about reality. The truth of my reality was that I used electricity just as much as I wanted. I dry my clothes with it instead of hanging them out.  I wash dishes with it.  Before this I liked to keep the house at 76 during the day in summer, and cooled to 73 at night so I could sleep the way I like to, windows closed (horrible allergies, it's true). But once the near-hurricane winds went through, I didn't even have a single yard light, nothing, nothing. Most people also lost their cable TV, internet, and land line.  The amount of food that had to be thrown away was sickening.

Where does my electricity come from? Men mining coal. I know that.  I was one mile underground in a coal mine once, researching a book. It is dangerous. The miners were much cleaner than Richard Avedon's series of miners "In the American West."  If you click on the link to look at those portraits, be aware that they are huge, maybe 3x5 feet, and were all taken on white backgrounds that Avedon and his assistants went to a lot of trouble to hang on the sides of barns.  The impact of whole galleries hung with them is amazing.

The coal trains pass just two blocks from our house on their way up to the power plant.  We love the sound of the whistles in the night, one long, two short, one long I think it is.  The sound a train makes on the rails, clackety-clack. There's a whole sort of romance about trains in American music.  The open cars are heaped with coal, you can see it, sitting in a long line of cars idling, waiting for the train to pass. 

Elsewhere in Ohio, and many other places, coal is strip mined.  This photo is of such land being "reclaimed" as required by laws that the mine owners consider rapacious - note the absence of anything like a mature tree.  An ecosystem is not restored  overnight.

This is not an abstract issue - where electricity comes from.  It comes from the work of people who do not earn nearly as much as college presidents and politicians and other people who have their suits custom-made, and smile and shake hands for a living. 

An hour of electric luxury takes hours of hard labor.  Mining is unionized, I understand, but much of the labor in this country is not, and is done for $8.25 an hour by someone who doesn't even get health insurance or pension, certainly not if they work for Apple or Walmart.  That's why Steve Jobs died worth at least 6 BILLION DOLLARS.  He had a genius for design, but a lot of people do; his fortune was built on the work of other hands, many of them outscourced to Foxconn.(Follow that link to refresh your memory on the suicides at that Chinese sweatshop.)  And yes, I love my iPad, and my Dell computer, too.

Thinking about climate change, about what enables the American way of life, about what my luxury takes from the earth; being aware of the cost to other beings and the earth when I switch a light on or run up the electric garage door - is this spirituality?

I'm afraid so.


  1. I'm glad you made it through, DG. With grace and appreciation, apparently. Thanks for this window into the last week or two in the midwest!

  2. We are so lucky, and most Americans have no idea(no passports, either).

  3. if only more people would come through this gate of AWARENESS. But then, it's air conditioned on the other side of the gate, and damn, but it's been hot. More's the pity.

  4. Thank you all. Karen, you're spot on with that metaphor. It's air-conditioned here, we almost always have all the electricity we can suck up and way more food than we need. What, me worry? (The old motto of Mad Magazine.)