Posted in Californication, culture, family, history, music, Okies

Okie Country Song: “California Cotton Fields”

It’s nice to find Okie-themed songs that aren’t by Woody Guthrie.  Not that all of his were bad, but a lot of us have mixed feelings about him for all kinds of reasons both good and bad.  (Mine are mostly around the fact he made a living off making fun of us as much as anything else.  But tempered by the knowledge that is making a living in a situation where especially at first he had no guarantee of one.)

Anyway as far as I know this is just a straight-up story from Merle Haggard’s life.  I’ve always liked Merle Haggard’s music.  He was one of the pioneers of the Bakersfield Sound, basically Californian country music, mostly Okie in origin, that sounded very different from Nashville either at the time or since.  Bakersfield being one of the largest cities in the San Joaquin Valley where the Okies lived, and one of the big centers for country & western music in California. This is mostly about the way people from Oklahoma and surrounding states, largely but not entirely during the Dust Bowl and Depression eras, were lured into California with promises of a standard of living that didn’t pan out.  A method of getting a cheap farm labor force into the state that hasn’t changed much. 😦 My family got lucky, after some time in the labor camps they were able to buy a series of small farms (one at a time, not owning several at once!) they spent the rest of their lives in debt over before being pushed out of farming altogether.  Most Okies didn’t even get that.
California cotton fields.
Posted in culture, history, music

The Eagle Flies Alone, and what does Armageddon mean today?

Sorry I can’t write out the lyrics.  Kruschshev must’ve really made an impression on Tony Carey as a kid, he’s always referencing the shoe-pounding incident.  I don’t know if I’ve ever shared my collection of Cold War songs in its entirety or not, but this is one of them.  (The vast majority are by this artist, he did a lot of Cold War inspired work both under his name Tony Carey and his sci-fi/historical dystopian band name Planet P Project which was basically just him with a synth and a lot of time on his hands.)

I find it interesting to hear the perspectives of different people who were there, writing songs about the Cold War during or shortly after the Cold War.  I’m at the tail end of the Cold War generations (I’m about as young as you can get and still have understood what was going on enough to absorb the historical context despite some massive comprehension problems on my part) and this guy is from close to the other end so it kind of bookends things for me.

To me, the end of the world is nuclear war.

Like.  Those two things mean the same thing

It’s taken me time to realize there are other ends.

It’s taken me even longer to realize the end of the world is not the end of the world.

It’s taken me even longer to convince anyone that nuclear war never stopped being a threat.  I never understood why everyone was so fast to think we were safe when the Cold War ended.

Like.  No.  Really.  I knew those nukes didn’t just vanish.  I knew the technology didn’t just vanish.  I knew the nature of modern human cultures didn’t just just vanish.  I was a kid but I wasn’t that oblivious to the world.

I wonder what Armageddon today’s kids are inheriting.

Understand I didn’t first hear Armageddon in a religious context.  It was another word for nuclear war.  I had no idea it was a religious metaphor or what religion it came from.

So I wonder what Armageddon means to today’s kids.

Does it mean this?

They were beginning to tell us stories like the above when I was a kid, but it was harder to grasp or believe.  Especially since I associated environmentalism with upper-middle-class and rich snobs trying to one-up each other’s status symbols.  So I had an aversion to taking them seriously.

This last song, I take as a call to action, to say, “This will happen if we don’t do something now.

But a friend warned me that the tone of the song can also signal despair, and stop people from hoping, and stop people from believing they have any obligation to carry on even in the face of loss of hope.

And I can see that.

So I’d remind people that the fact that each of us individually will die does not absolve us of our responsibilities while we are still alive, it only underscores them.  Because there will always be those who come after us.

And I’d remind people that the same is true of us as a species.

It still matters what we do for each other right now, because each of us matters right now.

It still matters what we leave for the next generation, and how hard or easy we make something that will never be easy.

It still matters, even in the event of extinction, what we leave for other life that may come after us.

It still matters what we do now.  Because everything now matters.

It still matters what we do for the future.  Because the future is not just any one of us, and it is not just all of us, it is a whole world, a whole universe, it is things we can’t understand or anticipate, and what we do has an effect and matters to all of that.

It matters because we are all on Julian of Norwich’s hazelnut together — this one tiny fragile nut that we have to take care of because it’s all we’ve got.  And if you think she lived a long time ago in simpler times, a reminder she lived during the frigging Plague in Europe, which sure looked like the end of the world at the time.

And just as death was considered a marker of social equality back in those days, another song from my Cold War collection references nuclear war just before saying “Ashes and diamond, foe and friend, we were all equal in the end.”

Wow I’m cheery today.

A Slovenian Danse Macabre mural

I actually love the symbolism of the Danse Macabre, though.  For real.  It says that death is the one thing that happens to every one of us, that makes us all equal.  It’s an art form depicting dead people dancing together, from all walks of life.  The Plague got people thinking that way.  That’s bleak optimism for you.

Ashes and diamond Foe and friend We were all equal in the end Pink Floyd, “Two Suns in the Sunset”

As far as I knew, growing up, the world ended with a flash.  The only difference you got was whether you were at the center of the flash and died quickly, or a further distance away and died slowly.  On 9/11, I was sure from FBI chatter (and lack of communication device) that I was headed towards the center of the flash.  I was a lot of things, but I wasn’t afraid.  I’d been ready for it my whole life.  It only took minutes to adjust to the “okay it’s finally happened, no time to feel bad about it” mentality.

It took a lot longer to adjust to the reality of what’d actually happened.  But I was baffled by all the people saying “We’re not safe anymore.”  Safe?  Since when were we safe?  Did everyone forget so fast?  And honestly what happened for real was a lot less bad than what I imagined when I heard the snippets like “Plane headed for the Pentagon” and “We think downtown San Jose will be a target, we need to shut down San Jose” and people standing on street corners waving newspapers with “ATTACK ON AMERICA” in giant letters.

I mean — there was no context for planes flying into buildings, and anyone old enough to be reared on Cold War propaganda and unable to get access to the real news was gonna come to one conclusion.  My dad was coming out of an isolated part of the Sierra Nevadas and came to the same exact conclusion when the planes stopped flying over (he memorized plane routes and used them to help orient to both time and locations) and he could only get patriotic music on the radio.

And now we’re facing so many different ends.

And yet none of the ends are ends, if we look beyond ourselves, just as our own end isn’t the end, if we look beyond our own personal death.  And even what looks like the end of the species may be survivable for small tiny numbers of scattered people.  But end of person, end of most of our species, end of our entire species, end of many species, whatever it ends up being — we still have a responsibility right now.  To everyone who still exists, to everyone who will exist, to everyone within our species, to everyone beyond our species.  We have a responsibility.  That never goes away.

As for despair, this is worth keeping in mind:

It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. Gandalf the Grey, J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

I know I’ve said all this before.  But some things are worth repeating.  And the memory of the Cold War seems worth keeping alive.  Different eras in history shape not just big forces in the world, but also the lives and beliefs and perspectives of small people everywhere.  And those lives and beliefs and perspectives and memories are, each one of them, vitally important.  They are what history is really made of — each one of us, not a single one invisible — and why history matters.

Posted in history

We got the cutest little cameras hangin’ everywhere oh yeah…

We got the cutest little cameras hangin’ everywhere, oh yeah…
After awhile you just forget they’re there, oh yeah…
What a perfect place

-Planet P Project (Tony Carey), “This Perfect Place”

Or if you want the entire song, with the lyrics in large subtitles across the screen:

I grew up on that.  The album came out in 1984, and the song is clearly highly influenced by the novel 1984.  It’s actually part of a very long concept album, and in fact was my introduction to prog rock, concept albums, and Okie singers with recognizable Okie accents who weren’t singing country.  (Although when he was asked if he’d ever do a country album, he said “They’re all country songs really” or something like that.)  So I heard this song a lot.  I won’t get into the plot of the thing, it’s long and complicated and not the point here.

When I was growing up, the idea of cameras everywhere was something out of a dystopia.  If someone said it could happen people would probably think they were a conspiracy theorist or paranoid in some way.  It was certainly something to be afraid of if you thought about it.  Not something normal.  Not something people would accept.  Something that would creep people out to think about.

These days in a lot of countries there are cameras everywhere, used for far more than the security purposes they’re claimed to be used for, and people are just frigging desensitized or something.

I know people who are very concerned with the role of surveillance in modern societies, who dedicate a lot of their time and energy to it.  I’ve never done that.  I’ve never liked the situation, I’ve detested the situation, I’ve feared the situation, but I’ve never been able to devote much time or energy to understanding it or doing anything about it or thinking about it much of the time other than in passing or when it affects me or someone I know.

It doesn’t sit easy with me, but even I’m used to it by now.  I hate it, but I’m used to it.

How the hell did we get from there to here?  I remember a time when nobody would’ve been used to it.  I can’t even remember how or when they were phased in.  How quickly or how slowly.  What changed.  What made people accept this.

I used to live in an apartment complex full of cameras, supposedly for security purposes.  In reality they were rarely used for security.  They were used for everything from finding lost items in the halls, to making sure tenants didn’t use the bulletin boards without authorization.  (I ran afoul of that one by posting landlord-tenant law on them.  Nothing but a snippet of actual landlord-tenant law printed out.  At 3 in the morning.  They were gone in an hour.)  Which is a free speech violation but they never did care about violations of our rights, it was low-income housing and they pretty publicly didn’t think highly of their tenants.  And they were largely used as part of the War on Drugs — catching any drug deals that happened to take place in the halls and evicting people.  None of which had anything to do with actual security or safety, the claimed purpose.  I can’t ever remember an instance where they were used to protect anyone.  There could be one, I just never heard of one.  They certainly didn’t use them to catch the people yelling death threats at me and a roommate through our door, during the same time period they were using them to police their bulletin boards.  Or the guy running around threatening to murder people with a crossbow.  Long story.

Anyway, I just wonder how we got there from here, and why people are okay with it, and how and why it happened, and what happens when everyone who remembers what it was like before is dead.

Posted in history

An eighties child’s conception of AIDS.

AIDS is something that slowly absorbed into my awareness, despite a lot more barriers to comprehension than the average child would be dealing with.  This is my best rendition of my child’s understanding, looked back on with adult eyes.

I was a child when I first heard the word AIDS, and like most words at the time, I didn’t understand it but it recorded itself in my memory.  Well — not AIDS as a single word, but rather the full phrase AIDS antibody test, which ran together in my head because news reporters repeated with a tone to their voice that meant it was important.  I stored it as important with no comprehension of any of the three words.

Later, it became important in another way.  I was learning to use words with minimal understanding.  I had worked out a rule I could use — if a word seemed to be used in many different contexts and have vastly different effects, I would not use the word.  Aides were people who existed in the classroom, aids were something else entirely, and AIDS was a word you heard all over the place.  I didn’t know they were different words, or how they were spelled.  I didn’t do this with all sound-alike words, but only ones that fit certain patterns I still can’t articulate.  I just knew better than to say any of them.  So for many years, I never said aides, aids, or AIDS.

On the playground, children ran around tagging each other.  As they touched each other, they’d say “Tag, you’ve got AIDS.  Tag, you’ve got AIDS!”  It wasn’t like regular tag.  Each child would run around touching other children one by one on the arm, saying “You’ve got AIDS,” and then some of those children would run around doing the same thing.  They weren’t playing tag, they were playing a plague game.

As I got a little older, I learned a little more about what AIDS actually was.  My mom’s friend Matt (not his real name) from work got AIDS.  In the process, he was outed as gay at work.  This was a hospital, everyone involved were healthcare workers, and he had tons of friends there.  By the time the dust settled, my mother was his only work friend.

I didn’t spend much time with him, but we did go with my mom up to Filoli Gardens once.  It’s the only time I’ve ever been there, and I will always associate it with Matt.

Filoli gardens, a large garden on the grounds of a mansion on the edge of the Santa Cruz mountains in San Mateo County.
Filoli gardens, a large garden on the grounds of a mansion on the edge of the Santa Cruz mountains in San Mateo County.  It’s the last place I went with Matt before he died.

I was a child and I picked up child things from this.  I didn’t know what gay meant — it was another word I would not use because of multiple meanings that fit a certain pattern.  I saw that he looked sicker and thinner every time I saw him, and one day my mom said he was dead.

I remember Ryan White, a boy with hemophilia, contracting AIDS from a blood transfusion, and hearing on the news how he was shunned by his entire school.  I remember him dying in 1990.

I was a little more able to understand things by the time Guy Nakatani started speaking at schools, including two schools I attended.  I still didn’t understand the moral weight people gave to AIDS or being gay.  Guy Nakatani had AIDS and talked about its effects on the body, and the effects of the treatments back then on the body, and that much I could grasp.  I remember him saying that he would talk about anything about AIDS except how he got it.  He said that people divided people with AIDS into innocent victims and deserving victims, and that he didn’t want to say anything that could put him on either side of the divide.  I didn’t understand the reference.  I’m pretty sure the other kids did.

I remember the second or third time I saw him at a school.  He was so thin he couldn’t sit down.  I had read in the paper that he doesn’t disclose how he got AIDS, and his reasons.  The paper had then gone on to say he’d gotten it from gay sex.  I understood enough to know this was horribly cruel and unfair.

I was in high school now.  I had some idea what gay meant.  I did not understand my own sexuality yet, but it gave me great amusement to learn that the only person friendly to me in that school was also gay and in the closet.  Everyone thought we should be dating, or were dating.  Nope.  I’d come out as bisexual in a year or two as one of the first steps in my coming-out process, which I know makes me a tired stereotype but it’s what happened.  I’d be 19 before I could say the word lesbian about myself, and that was a long way off.  And even longer before I could articulate anything even vaguely coherent about gender.

There was one openly gay boy in my high school.  I heard everyone talk about him when they thought I wasn’t listening.  They said that he only was out for attention.  They said he read gay magazines in the student lounge for attention.  He transferred to another school across the country.  Then he ‘burned out’ and had to come home.  I later wondered how much homophobic bullying had to do with that.

Likewise, there was one openly gay guy in a student organization I’d drifted into.  (I drifted into a lot of things at that age without a lot of intent or agency involved.  I understood a lot more, but was hiding at least some of my continuing incomprehension without actually trying. It’s just how I operated.  And I ended up doing everything from joining organizations to choosing majors in this manner.)  It was kind of like a debate club.

I remember there was a debate about gay marriage.  And he said he wanted to meet a beautiful man and then marry him.  That line from his speech, and the emotion he said it with, was the only one I understood.  But I understood it.  I heard people gossip about him, too.  They said he wouldn’t be such a big deal in the organization if he didn’t use being gay to get attention.  Like when I was younger, I didn’t evaluate those statements for meaning for many years.  But I remembered them, and I still remember them.  For what it’s worth, as is obvious, I couldn’t disagree more.

So Guy Nakatani came to our high school, just as he’d come to my middle school.  It was just after that horrible newspaper story had been published.   He looked exhausted, weak, and sick but he wanted to continue educating people about AIDS for as long as humanly possible.  He tried to do so.

I don’t remember most of the questions, but I remember one  One student raised his hand and said, “How did your parents react to finding out you were gay?”

Guy Nakatani was silent.  The whole room was silence.  There was just an eternity of awkward, stony, defiant silence.

And then things moved on.

I later read in the paper that Guy Nakatani had died.

And apparently, however they reacted at first, his parents came to see it as their mission to promote loving acceptance of having gay children.  But I could feel the burning horrible invasiveness and unfairness of the question when it was asked.  And I could feel his equal shock and defiance in response.  He seemed to be trying not to cry.

In health class at school, when they covered the topic at all, they tried to tell us everyone could get AIDS and everyone needed to use comdoms.  One day, they had a gay couple come in.  One of them had AIDS, one didn’t.  They were sexually active, with protection.  Later I heard both kids and adults condemning them.

That same year I saw Guy Nakatani the last time, and after I’d crashed and burned and had to drop out of high school, my mom told me that her friend’s daughter had just died of AIDS.  She wanted to get rid of all her clothes, and wanted to give them to me.

I thought at first that her mom had just given me all of her clothes.  As in, all her clothes from her entire life.  Because there were clothes that seemed like they were for children.  Young children.

My mom explained to me that the clothes that were too small for me were because she’d gotten so emaciated towards the end of her life that she had to wear children’s sizes.  I never forgot that.  And I always remembered her when I wore her clothing, even though I didn’t know her and never met either her or her mother.

900038364_4356c03290_o
Mel at 15 or 16 in a residential facility playing with a dog and wearing the dress of a girl who died from AIDS.

Objects tell stories of their own, and they talk to me better than words do, so I have never forgotten her.  I wore her clothes and I wore her shoes, and I still wear a pair of shoes in the exact make and style of the ones her mother gave me.

I only dimly registered the major AIDS battles that were heating up the country and the world throughout my childhood.  I didn’t know about ACT-UP, although I’m sure I heard of their activities in the background and didn’t connect them (I did a lot of that).  I didn’t have the opportunity to look for information or ask questions, I didn’t drift in that direction.  But as I drifted through life — which is what I did back then — I drifted near enough for AIDS to penetrate my awareness for as long as I can remember picking up on words at all.  And it’s weird the things you remember…

Remember that history is made out of each of us all put together, ordinary people, and what we remember of it is important.  I may not have understood everything being said and done around me, but I absorbed it all.  This may be a bit of a dismal post for Pride Month, but this is what I grew up with.  This is part of our community’s history.  And it’s important to remember it all.

Posted in family, history

America’s Atomic Veterans

Black and white photo of mushroom cloud in the distance with a number of men sitting on the ground in the desert, watching. Cacti are visible in between the men and the mushrom cloud.
Atomic bomb test in Yucca Flat, Nevada, April 22, 1952.

I was raised on stories of atomic bomb tests, witnessed from afar.  My father’s family were California Okies who lived and worked on a series of farms all over Kern County and Tulare County, California.  My father told childhood stories of seeing flashes on the other side of the Sierras, then watching the shock wave roll towards them.  The shock waves were often strong enough to  knock you out of bed, or knock water out of the irrigation canals.

I didn’t know this story, though, until my father wrote his memoirs in his late sixties or early seventies.  He was born in 1941, and this seems to take place in 1952:

One afternoon, I came home from school and there was a strange man in the living room talking to Dad and Mom.  He was one of Dad’s cousins and was home on leave from the Army.  I sat and listened with wide eyes as he described his participation in the atomic bomb tests in Nevada.  He along with many other soldiers had sat in a trench one mile from ground zero.  They had dark goggles and ear protection that was their only special equipment.  The bomb sat on a tall tower.  They were told not to look at the tower or to raise their heads above the edge of the trench.  Wen the bomb went off, Dad’s cousin saw a blinding flash, and was thrown backwards against the trench wall.  He said that the blast was deafening and that a sheet of hot sand whistled over his head.  We talked for a while and then he left.  I never saw him again.  Six years later, in 1958, I heard that he had died of leukemia.

-Ronald Baggs

That’d be my first cousin, twice removed.  (I had to look that up.)  Family history meets just plain history.

The American military carried out these bomb tests regularly, and often they tested the effects on American citizens.  Quite often, these were low-ranking military personnel who were not told what they were getting into and given no radiation protection.  This is besides the effects of fallout on civilians, which was a huge problem in Nevada, surounding areas, and anywhere else weather patterns happened to take it.  And testing on unwitting civilians, which happened as well.  And the civilians in the Pacific Islands who because of all kinds of racist and colonialist crap were even more disregarded by America and France and other places that nuked the crap out of the region than most people I just talked about.

The Only Country that Ever Nuked America Was America.

Sometimes, they even had their test subjects stand up and walk towards Ground Zero after the bomb went off.

Many people, like my grandpa’s cousin, didn’t survive long.

But many people did.  And many of them — and their children — had a lot of health problems that continue to this day, especially cancer.  They were sworn to secrecy (sometimes under penalty of treason), but many began breaking that silence in order to protest lack of compensation or apology for being made into human guinea pigs for nuclear weapons.

Today, they’re known as atomic veterans.  But most people don’t know, or only know in passing, that this happened, and what happened to them and their families.  The following Retro Report video is a good overview with lots of interviews with atomic vets and their families:

It makes the point that while nuclear testing officially stopped, there are still atomic vets from after that era:  People who were sent in to clean up earlier test sites.

This post may be late for Memorial Day, but on Memorial Day I always remember people like my grandfather’s cousin, completely forgotten casualties of the Cold War, killed by their own superiors in the military. They’re rarely given the recognition for this that they would be had they died in other military contexts.

Here’s a video shot by a guy whose dad died after being subjected to atomic testing in the Marines:

And he makes the also-good point that this is not a partisan issue, it’s a matter of basic respect.

So that’s what Memorial Day has had me thinking of.   I have lots of vets both living and dead in the family, but the only one I know of who died because of something that happened during his service was used as a lab rat in Nevada without being told.  My grandfather on the other side got a Purple Heart for a relatively minor injury in the Pacific Theater of World War II, but my other grandpa’s cousin got no recognition to my knowledge even though he died from the effects of the radiation.

Apparently they were usually sworn to secrecy under threat of treason charges, but he had no trouble telling family.  I imagine that was common.

They’re still fighting for recognition and compensation, to my knowledge.  The unfortunate joke among atomic vets — probably quite real — is that the government’s just waiting until most of them die.

And most people don’t even know they exist.

Posted in Californication, Problems and solutions

Denial won’t get you water. We need solutions that don’t involve playing pretend about what’s happening.

I used to run from the fact that I’m an Okie.  Hide from it.  Pretend it wasn’t there.  This is understandable:  I associated this part of my heritage with a massive collective, generational trauma kind of situation.  It was easier to pretend it didn’t exist.  But it still existed.  And I feel a lot more whole once I stopped running from it.  I’ve learned things about myself, my family, and my culture.  And I’ve learned what this history — even the bad parts — can teach me about the world, about what I take for granted, what I don’t, and how that differs from other people.  And that’s valuable information to have.

So background if you don’t know what an Okie is:  In this context, it’s a bunch of people who fled economic and environmental disaster in Oklahoma and surrounding states mostly during the thirties but some before that and some after that.  A lot of us, including my grandparents, came to California and worked the fields in the San Joaquin Valley.  (The major agricultural center of the state.)  We weren’t welcomed.  If you’ve heard of us at all, it’s probably from the Grapes of Wrath, which paints a limited picture.  We’re from pretty diverse backgrounds and have pretty diverse opinions.  By now, we’ve sort of blended in — sort of — and the open hate is mostly behind us although there are subtle reminders, and even a lot of Californians only vaguely know about us.  (Especially since a lot of Californians think the San Francisco area and the Los Angeles area are California, but I’m getting off track here.  Suffice to say California has its own version of flyover country and my father was born there, raised all over Kern and Tulare counties.)

So okay.  One thing I have always understood is that resources are limited.  That you can’t fuck around with the physical world around you and not have it fuck you around right back.  That you can’t live without water.  That no amount of denial, no matter how sophisticated a form it takes, not even any amount of money, can ultimately get around that:  You can’t live without water.  And you can’t fudge these things.  You can put off the inevitable by moving things around, but you’re only making things worse by using up resources faster instead of using them more wisely.

I grew up in and around Silicon Valley.  A place with a lot of people in it whose form of denial takes the form of wealth and technology.  They think throwing a ton of money, intellect, or technology at a problem will solve it.  When they aren’t busy just imagining that the limits of the real physical world will go away if they transcend their physical form using the power of positive thinking or bullshit along those lines.  In extreme forms, I’ve seen the technology thing take the form of “Resource shortages will stop existing if we pour all of our effort into creating a superhuman computer that will know how to synthesize elements from scratch.”

Guys, you still need raw materials to synthesize things from, even if that were possible, which I doubt it actually is.  And your belief that technology will simply continue accelerating, getting more and more sophisticated and amazing, into the indefinite future, is not born out by history.  At all.

And yeah we need people thinking about how to solve these problems.  And we need people inventing things to help us solve these problems.  But throwing all your energy and money and time into a supercomputer that’ll probably never exist, is not the way, guys.  And all of your thought, all of your invention, all of your innovation, it all has to be grounded in certain basic aspects to reality.  And there’s a lot of people in Silicon Valley and other technological hotspots who live in a dream world where they can’t even see the people working the assembly lines in the next room over, let alone the people digging up and refining the materials, growing and harvesting the food, the complex physical web of physical actions in physical reality that exists in order to prop them up in their technological dreamland.

My dad was a type of person I actually saw a lot of in Silicon Valley:  A rural Okie techie.  They acted, looked, and dressed different than the other techies, came from different roots, approached problems differently.  My father wanted to be a farmer, but small family farms were being driven out of existence by the horrors of corporate farming that’ve taken over large parts of California.  His grandfather, who never graduated junior high, believed strongly in education and had saved up to subsidize an education for his grandchildren.  My dad got a two-year degree and became an electronics technician.  He moved to the Bay Area to find work.  There’s lots of people like him.  People who, like him, grew up tinkering with electronics in the attics of their farms in their spare time, cobbling things together from radio parts.  People who combined inventiveness and practicality.

And he took that to his job.  Technically his job was to build electronics for particle physics experiments.  In reality his job was a lot more complicated than that.  He might be doing engineering, even though his job title and pay were technician because he had never been to school for engineering.  He might be teaching grad students in engineering who knew less than he did.  He might be digging ditches and setting up equipment.  His job drew really well on the skills he had and he was very valued there.

And like a lot of the Okie techies I’ve met, he had that streak of practicality, that understanding of the hard physical limitations of reality, that a lot of other techies seem to lack.  His parents came to California fleeing drought, dust storms, hard times, and the biggest manmade environmental disaster the world had seen at that point.  He grew up and worked on farms.  He knew where things came from.  All of us knew where things came from.  And we knew what happens when things run out.  And what happens when you run them out too fast.

Okies have been warning of a second dust bowl since at least the fifties.  The solutions found for the dust bowl have involved piping water around in ever-increasing quantities without changing much else.  Aquifers — underground stores of water — that had been around forever, that had huge quantities of water, are now being depleted.  The fields my family worked existed in a converted desert, water piped in from elsewhere.  Tulare and Kern counties are now the epicenter of the California water crisis.  I’ve seen the change in my lifetime.  And it’s only going to get worse.

You can’t live without water.

You can’t produce water by magic.  Not even technological magic.

You can run out of water.

You can’t play musical chairs with water, moving it around from one place to another, hoping you won’t be the one dehydrating to death or living on arsenic-tainted water when the music stops.

I’ve always been disturbed by the stock market.  I used to think it made no sense because I was dumb or hadn’t been raised by people who invested.  And who knows what all makes it hard for me to understand.  But I’ve realized part of it is it’s like a giant game of musical chairs where there’s not a lot of chairs and everyone’s running around moving the chairs around trying to conceal how few there are.

But at least stocks are sort-of imaginary.  Like they take a level of abstraction to even believe in.  They have serious consequences, because symbolic as they are, the things they deal with are based in physical reality, like everything, you know, actually, real.  But they’re really just ideas, immensely powerful ideas.  (This is one reason I’ve always found them hard to understand.)

Right now there’s people speculating on water like it’s a fucking stock.

Here’s the thing about water:  It runs out.

You can move it around in circles and use it and use it and use it and make money off it… and if you try that, you’re gonna kill a lot of people because we all need water.  You will run out of water if you do this.  You will.  There are no questions here.

I understand the specifics of California because I grew up there.  But this is affecting the entire world.  I live in Vermont.  I live next to a giant lake — almost but not quite made one of the Great Lakes.  These water speculators have been very interested in buying our water and making money off it.  This is going on all over the world.  It needs to be resisted whenever and wherever it happens.

You can’t live without water.

The real physical world has real physical limits.

All resources can run out if used badly.

These are things I know because I’m an Okie.

These are things you need to know too.

When you stop running from a problem, you can face it.

We need to face something about this:  It is already a crisis.  People are already dying.  In California, in the rest of the world.

Everything we do to destroy water destroys ourselves.

Speculating on water to make money is basically playing a gambling game with the future of every life form that depends on water (which is all of us):  This is evil and needs to be stopped.

The things that many corporations and wealthy individuals are doing to water and other resources are not things that will be solved by taking few or no showers, not flushing the toilet, drinking as little as possible, and not watering the lawn.

And all those farm laborers in the San Joaquin Valley who are having to buy water or drink arsenic-tainted water?  Let me just illustrate this for you if you don’t realize how fucked up it is.

The only real job I ever did and got paid for was on a horse farm in the San Joaquin Valley.  It involved a lot of hard physical work in blistering summer heat.  The San Joaquin Valley gets really frigging hot in the summer.  Easily 110 degrees in the shade, hotter in the sun.  So hot that where I lived, all the stores let you take your dogs inside because leaving them in the car would kill them, end of story.

You need a lot of water to do that kind of work in that heat.  And the corporate farms are using all their water on plants — often plants that get them a lot of money — and leaving none for their farmworkers.  The farmworkers have to buy their water or use tainted water.  People are dying.  This is obscene.  It’s also part of the nonsense reality lived in by people who seriously think that their money will protect them from drought and famine when their crops can no longer grow, or no longer be harvested.  Maybe for individuals, that’s true to a limited extent, but collectively, they’re even screwing themselves over in the long run.  And even if you live nowhere near California or the other real centers of this ongoing crisis, they’re screwing you over too.  If you have to eat and drink, you’re getting screwed over.  Money can cushion you for a little while, it won’t cushion everyone forever.

It alarms me how little many people understand the physical underpinnings of their own survival.  Where food and water come from, how they get in the ground, how they grow or are raised, how they’re pumped or harvested or slaughtered, how they’re gotten to you, all the people and animals and plants and fungi and bacteria doing their part in all this.  How fragile this is.  How our biggest obligation is to protect it because without it we have nothing.  And I mean nothing.

Anyway — as I said, lifestyle changes by ordinary people won’t do damn near enough.  Hell, even if everyone in California got their act together, and used water as wisely as humanly possible, at this point you’ve got more people there than the natural level of water there can possibly support indefinitely and you’re already dealing with the consequences.

I’m not saying this to make you hopeless.

I’m saying this because I hope someone with the power to do so will wrest control away from the people who are hell-bent on destroying basic physical things that nobody and nothing can live without.  Before things get even worse.  Things are already bad, going to get worse, but we still have a choice to change things so that they aren’t the worst of the possible worst.  (And if you think the worst of the possible worst is human beings not surviving, you haven’t grasped the enormity of the problem.)  And we have an obligation to do what we can.  An obligation to every person and every living thing who stands a chance of surviving even a little bit longer and suffering a little bit less if we change things.   Which is all of us, and our descendants, and all other living things.

I’m just a mostly-housebound disabled person blogging this from bed.  I’m saying these things because I have some hope that an Okie perspective on resource shortages may spur some people — people who can leave the house — into understanding what’s at stake, and figuring out what to do about it.  Figure out solutions but ground your solutions in practical reality, or they are no solutions at all.  And part of the solutions has to be — has to be — stopping various extremely wealthy people and corporations from literally ripping the ground out from under our feet, and our water and other necessities beneath it.

For a brief understanding of the water situation in California, you could do a lot worse than the documentary Water and Power: A California Heist which last I knew was available on Netflix, and for rental on Amazon and YouTube.  Here’s a trailer:

If you want to know about the history of the Dust Bowl, its causes, its consequences, and its later implications which are beginning to come true as warned, there’s a longer documentary series by Ken Burns called The Dust Bowl.  I learned things from it, and I’m an Okie.  But it’s that cultural foundation, learned without being formally taught in any way, that’s allowed me to have the perspective I have on the meaning of resources in general and water in particular.  If that or something similar isn’t in your background, you could learn a lot from watching it.  Most people have no idea how bad it was, and how much worse it eventually will be.  The story’s definitely told from a certain perspective that leaves a lot of people (like the original inhabitants, still there) out, but the basic physical facts are told in glaring excruciating detail by interviews with people who were there.  And that’s what you should get out of this:  What it was like, how it happened, and how the solutions aren’t solutions, and the likely consequences.

Here’s a trailer for that one:

Most Dust Bowl survivors are dead now.  They can’t tell you what it was like except as recorded voices in documentaries like that one.  And many survivors were already dead when it was made.

I feel like as an Okie descendant it’s my duty to pass on the knowledge that was passed on to me:  What resources are, what misusing them does, the fact that reality has hard physical limits that nobody and no thing and no amount of money or denial or fake quick fixes can ultimately outrun.  And why we need to work creatively within those limits and really damn fast, to build the best possible future for as many people as possible.

And as a Californian who lived through Enron, why privatization isn’t the solution (Water and Power gets into it in more depth, there’s devastating information about Australia).

And as a disabled person who’s experienced severe dehydration (from not being able to get enough water, from fluid loss, and from conditions that made it impossible for my body to properly use the water it had, at various times).  Like everything from can-barely-manage-it-at-home dehydration, to ER-level dehydration, to hospitalization-level dehydration, ICU-level dehydration.  To tell you, at the most visceral level possible, that is not how you want to die.

And this is already happening.  If it’s off in the future for you it’s only because you’re really lucky.  It’s happening right now.  All we can do is throw on the brakes and find a way to truly change how things are being done to the best extent possible within the limits of physical reality and not some distant dreamworld.

If you’re reading this, and can do so, please do more than I can do.  If you’ve convinced   that things are so terrible nobody can do anything so why try, please read my last post, “We’re doomed, so we can do whatever we want…” and then try to get your head out of your ass before you hurt someone.  Despair will kill more people faster and more cruelly than anything else we could possibly do.  It’s important to be able to stare reality straight in the face, without flinching away or denying it, and then stand up and say “I’ll do what I can, because it’s the right thing to do.”

We owe this to each other.  Hope doesn’t mean ignoring reality.  It means facing reality as honestly as possible, finding the point where “What I can do” and “What needs to be done” meets, and doing it, because it’s right.