Green Dilemma

It’s a dilemma.  I face it every year.  I don’t have green to wear and it’s St. Patrick’s Day.  For your average run-of-the-mill citizen, this might not be an issue—but I do have an Irish heritage (in part), and so it’s a heartfelt concern.  The reason I don’t have green has less to do with fashion (consider the source!) than with my clothing purchasing practices.  First of all, I like to make my clothes last.  Fabrics can be quite durable.  They aren’t mechanical and therefore don’t break down often.  I don’t live a rough-and-tumble life, so tears aren’t really a problem.  The end result is that I keep my clothes as long as they’re functional.  When they begin to wear out I go to the store and examine the clearance racks until I find something in my size.  That means color selection is often a matter of very limited options.

Once in a great while I have landed something green.  I still remember a green shirt I had in college.  It served me well for more than four St. Patrick’s Days.  It long ago succumbed to overuse, however, because I wore it on other days as well.  And let’s face it, when I make one of those infrequent trips to the clothiers’ shops, this particular holiday’s not on my mind.  Unless, of course, I go shopping in March.  Back when I lived in Boston it was easy to get your Irish on.  I bought a bright green silky (I don’t know if it was real silk) tie with white shamrocks on it.  It was probably down at Faneuil Hall.  It had been a bit outlandish to wear to work in New York City, though.  Indeed, at work staid dress was by far the most common code.  Consequently it hung unused in my closet for years.

When we moved a couple summers back, I noticed my green tie had faded to bronze.  I thought it went the other way around.  In any case, my last truly green clothing article was no longer green.  Yes, it still has shamrocks, but I’d feel even more ridiculous trying to rock a bronze tie and pass myself off as Irish.  It won’t even pass for gold.  Of course, I work from home.  I’ve practiced social distancing long before it was a trend or a government mandate, whichever it is.  The only people to see my lack of green would be my wife and daughter, and perhaps a Jehovah’s Witnesses that might stop by.  But still, even minor celebrations are anticipated at times such as this.  Although I won’t be going out today I’ll probably be spending some time in my closet and reflecting on the true heritage of my Irish forebears.

Perhaps St. Pat shops like I do?

Recycle This

Like nearly all unfortunate white collar workers, the computer provided for me at my job is a PC. I don’t know the brand—that’s not important. When I want to delete a document, I’m asked if I want to move it to the “recycle bin.” Okay, I’ve been an environmentalist since I was a teenager. Growing up in a small town, recycling was a foreign concept, vaguely communistic even, but I could understand that limited resources would run out. Living paycheck to paycheck, that was perfectly clear. The town where I grew up still doesn’t offer recycling, but having a recycling bin on a computer screen? Are the electrons from my documents indeed being recycled, or is this just a way to make me feel good about throwing away something somebody spent hours putting together? It seems such a tautology to me.

This recycled world can be a scary place. I was a victim of identity theft once. Thankfully I hardly have enough to steal that the thief got away with very little before the credit card company found him. It meant having to go a few weeks without purchasing power, and a possible stain on my ratings. One merchant didn’t want to refund the charges, although it was clear that they were illegally made. So we recycle our sensitive material with the greatest care. It has to be shredded first. We had one of those home shredders that took hours of time to feed in “up to six sheets” at a time (two was the actual limit), and before you knew it the weekend was over and you had bags full of bird nesting and you still had to take them to the recycling place. So our local community, we learned, participates in a shredding drive. My wife and I went a few weekends ago and it was so popular that we were turned away at the gate. The line was too long and the trucks were almost full.

This past weekend I tried again. I had to drive to a new location where, I kid you not, the traffic pattern had to be changed to accommodate all the shredders. I was kind of glad in an impatient sort of way. I’d brought a book to read, anticipating such a wait. I was a bit anxious, however, with a police officer watching. I mean I had a book to my face in traffic, after all. At least it wasn’t a cell phone. The line crept along until I was finally admitted. I had six bags of confidential stuff in the trunk, and I was glad to have the chance to have my personal life obliterated by the huge, roaring trucks. As I inched to the front of the line, the check-in lady asked me what town I was from, and in response gave me a handful of papers that I would only have to recycle. I thought of my recycle bin on my desktop at work. There seems to be no end to disposing of the information that defines our lives. Some would call it a tautology.

C58E576D-BA75-4991-AA88-B095BBED4E1C copy

Sustain This

Sustainability“Grant me chastity and continence,” Augustine famously prayed, “but not yet.” That tragicomic scene kept coming to me as I read Jeremy L. Caradonna’s Sustainability: A History. Few ideas can bear the sheer weight of irony than that of a human population destroying their own and only planet. We know we’re doing it, and yet for a few more greenbacks to flash before our fabulously wealthy peers, we don’t mind warming the place up by a few degrees. There’ll be time to throw on the brakes right before the crash. I once took a ride, perhaps unwisely, with a friend who believed nothing could go wrong. Although the car didn’t actually roll, it came awfully close, and I am haunted by what might have happened. The difference between that incident and destruction of the environment is that the latter has already happened.

I’m cynical enough not to believe in simple solutions to complex problems, and reading Caradonna was a sobering finish to a day that had started out optimistically. Such books are not easy to read. Science does not come charging over the hill like the cavalry to save us at the end of the picture. You can’t take your marbles and go home when the marble is home. Sustainability does not set out to be a bleak book. There is a guarded optimism to it, and I was particularly pleased to see that sustainists readily recognize that without some kind of just distribution of goods, no system will ever be sustainable. I had no idea, until I read this book, that some economists advocate for a steady state economic existence instead of the ridiculously illogical constant growth. Constant growth in a world of limited resources is the worst kind of delusion.

We’ve gone pretty far down the road to destroying our planet. Already it will take many decades to repair the damage done. If we can muster the will to address corporate greed with a good old dose of primate ethics. Society, in all honesty, may have to collapse before that happens. If it does, of course, the strong will survive. I have a prediction to make, and it’s one that rationalists won’t like. If we can’t avoid the wall that is right before us, and if society as we know it buckles under its own greed, the survivors will, as sure as gray matter, devise a religion to explain it. As a species we are all about myths. Like fabled saints we believe we can have our fossil fuels and consume them too. Before rising sea levels wash us all away, do yourself a favor and read Sustainability. And when you’re awake for nights afterward, tell everyone else you know to read it too.

Saints and Snakes

I am not now, nor have I ever been, Catholic. So why am I wearing green today? It could be that a drop or two of Irish blood courses through my veins from a stow-away great-great-grandmother, or the assurance that, as an American mutt some Irish must have gotten in somehow. Or maybe it is more than that. From my youngest days, even before I knew of my family history (and nobody had bothered to inquire), I still wore green on Saint Patrick’s Day. Getting off the bus at school and seeing so many people with otherwise so little in common coming together to wear shades of green on the same day was somehow inspiring and made me feel like part of something larger than myself. It was a day of fun, and decidely not one of doctrine or repressive decrees about women or homosexuals or even Protestants. It was a day of unity.

Can a day based on church mythology ever long remain a day of peaceful inclusion of others? In college I met militant Protestants who insisted that orange be worn on Saint Patrick’s Day to stand in solidarity with the Protestant minority. I heard news reports of gays being excluded from otherwise festive Saint Patrick’s Day parades in major cities. Maybe the snakes driven out of Ireland have lodged themselves in the souls of those who plant divisiveness—but it occurs to me that I’m being unfair to the snakes.

In a tiny time capsule of twenty-four hours, Saint Patrick’s Day is a miniature paradigm of the ambivalence that we call religion. At its best it draws people of all backgrounds together for a celebration as large as life itself. At the same time, it is the ultimate in exclusion—the statement that we are special in a way you are not. Green, the color of Ireland, is an apt symbol for the day. In the planet world, the large swaths of earth seen from high above, green is the color of life. Each spring the shooting forth of green is eagerly awaited as the plant kingdom reveals to us that a refreshing change is in the air. Among many animal species, however, green stands for illness, and perhaps impending death. So here I am wearing green—not Catholic, not plant, not wishing to make unequal divisions. It is just like a religious holiday to celebrate ambiguity.

What's love got to do with it?

Literary Floods

Oryx and Crake ends with a cliffhanger. I read the book at the suggestion of a friend and found a dystopia that simply continues along present trends. Naturally I had to read the second part, Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. I had picked up this book first, not realizing that there was a previous novel, because I supposed the eponymous flood to be that of Noah. I was not disappointed on that score. In keeping with her strong biblical awareness, Atwood has given readers the creation in Oryx and Crake, and the deluge in The Year of the Flood. Set in the same forlorn future, those who survive the pandemic described in the first book seek to survive in a world where most of the people are gone. Many of the survivors, as we learn in the second installment, are former members of an alternative religion, God’s Gardeners. This quasi-cult, led by Adams and Eves, prepares for the waterless flood (pandemic) by caching Ararats—supply stores—around the broken-down city they inhabit. As in Genesis these Noahs and Mrs. Noahs are replications of Adam and Eve.

Not only is Atwood an engaging author, she supports the green causes advocated by her books. This is a more honest form of religion than most sharply chiseled theologies that do nothing to improve the lot of a suffering world. Academic religionists like to tell us exactly what God is like while shrugging shoulders over the destruction of everything he putatively made. In Atwood’s world, those who believe in God express it through care of their planet. As always, however, they are the modest voices easily drowned out by the unconscionable greed of the powerful. In the words of John Dickinson from the musical 1776, “Don’t forget that most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor.” Rare is the person willing to take the higher road and set aside his or her own wants for the benefit of others.

Ethics, at one time, meant seriously considering the implications of what we do. With the morals of our “leaders” it is pretty difficult to hold to that illusion any longer. Yesterday I sat through another round of ethics training and learned nothing that I hadn’t learned in Sunday School as a child. Be nice to others, don’t use them for your own advantage, help those who need assistance. It really isn’t that hard. Newt Gingrich with his highly unethical treatment of his ex-wife, Anthony Weiner’s peccadilloes, Sarah Palin’s revisionist reality—these scarcely inspire confidence. The flood is upon us. I think I might rather live in a world the Margaret Atwood would envision, as long as she was there too, to show us how to survive.