Escape Routes

City filigree.
New York City filigree.

Our fair city has been pretty quiet of late, apart from the unending political jousting and the rising tide of random violent crime.

A lot of people try to get out of town during August, when the sidewalks sizzle and the mosquitoes never sleep. Others hunker down and find ways to unwind in situ. For me this means reading even more than usual. Most recently, on the suggestion of a cousin who has spent most of her life living in New York City, I read A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. My cousin was shocked when I told her I’d never read it.

I had heard of the book. But in spite of being an English major in college, I somehow never was required to read this particular classic. I realize that picking and choosing required books is a complex business. School administrations have to take into account a lot of cultural and social and political forces when selecting books for public schools. But still.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was selected as one of the “Books of the Century” by the New York Public Library. Of course that was last century, but having spent a lot of my life in that one I could totally relate to the book which, in case some of you haven’t gotten around to it, is a lovingly detailed yet realistic account of the childhood of an impoverished young girl of Irish heritage in Brooklyn in the early 1900s. Written by Betty Smith, and drawn from her personal experiences growing up in Brooklyn, the story delivers a compelling sense of energy and optimism amid the social problems and prejudices of that particular time.

Most of all, Smith creates an emotionally resonant portrait of a family struggling against the odds to achieve even a small portion of the so-called American dream. Young Francie Nolan, the bright plucky heroine, has a big heart and a vivid imagination. She loves to read and cherishes her library card. And one of her favorite places to read is on the fire escape outside her family’s tiny apartment.

On a recent visit to New York City I was struck by the beauty of the fire escapes in lower Manhattan. New construction eschews the old exterior stairs that zigzag over the facades of so many old city buildings. And no doubt modern fire prevention systems are more reliable and practical for any number of reasons.

Yet there’s something about those old fire escapes that speaks to me of romance. And not just Holly Golightly playing “Moon River.”

In summertime the old fire escapes serve as a kind of interstitial zone between the public life of the street and the private life inside buildings. Like an urban tree fort with connections to others.

Cities work best when the people living in them feel connected in positive ways. When circumstances drive people into hiding something precious is lost. Our modern cities may have outgrown the need for old fashioned fire escapes, but our need for community has never been greater. Spaces that allow people of different social backgrounds to mingle in harmony provide an important part of the process of civilization.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn reminds us that the character of a place plays a big role in the development of personal character. We all need an escape from time to time. But having a place to call home is what keeps us going.

Rain of Signs

D.C. has had record breaking rain this summer. Keep those umbrellas handy.
D.C. has had record breaking rain this summer. Keep those umbrellas handy.

When I was a kid there was no Weather Channel. The idea that millions of people might spend a great portion of every day watching news on screens was a far-fetched notion, worthy of a science fiction story perhaps, but not plausible.

Welcome to modern life. Plausible it may not be, but stranger than fiction it certainly is.

When we lived on the West Coast and were considering the challenges of trying to move back East, we had an imaginary white board on which we listed the pros and cons of the two coasts. Each has its merits. Each has its downsides.

But whenever the issue of weather came up, I would tell myself that wasn’t the main reason. Every place has weather. No place is perfect. Not even Hawaii, or Los Angeles, no matter what the locals may say.

It’s a matter of degree. In weather, as in body temperature, a few degrees one way or the other can spell the difference between delight and delirium. Also, there’s the issue of quantity. A couple of 100 degree days here and there, with low humidity, and you might think, so what? But if an extreme situation persists without letup, say, forty days of rain, or four hundred maybe, it’s only natural to start wondering if maybe Mother Nature is fed up and starting to clean house.

And we are the ants in the cupboard. No offense, Ant Man.

While governments and policy makers continue to drag their feet in acknowledging global climate change, the climate is changing so quickly now that even the Pope has taken note. Unfortunately legislators accustomed to giving lip service to religion have no qualms about continuing business as usual, allowing the destruction of irreplaceable natural resources in order to keep the engines of greed churning. If only that were science fiction.

I don’t read a whole lot of science fiction. I don’t have a lot of interest in distant galaxies although I enjoy watching them explode on the big screen. I’m only human.

However,  I picked up one of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels because I was intrigued by the title: “Forty Signs of Rain.” Written in 2004, it reads almost as if it were taken from today’s news. Set mostly in a steamy summer in Washington, D.C., the story centers on the efforts of a Senate staffer working on environmental issues, while his wife works to solve the problems from the scientific side at the National Science Foundation.

The book is replete with scientific detail that I, quite frankly, didn’t bother to commit to memory, but the essence of the story is compelling and the scenes of weather-related chaos resonate in part because these situations are already happening with increasing frequency all over the world. The flooded zoos where the animals must be released to have a chance of survival, the outreach from the “League of Drowning Nations,” islands and whole cultures facing obliteration as the sea inexorably rises, the mega “100-year” storms happening every month.

Readers looking for a neat solution or an apocalyptic end won’t find either in this novel, but the scenario Robinson creates is vivid and entirely plausible, and coming soon to a reality near you and me.

You won’t need to watch it on the Weather Channel. Just step outside while you still can.

Mad Men, Madder Women

Buy things. Drive everywhere. It's the American Way.
Buy things. Drive everywhere. It’s the American Way.

I’m not good at goodbyes. But I was ready for the departure of Don Draper and his conniving crew long before Matthew Weiner wrapped up the much-lauded television series.

True confession: I am a TV junkie. Not that I have to have it every day, but everyone has a weakness. I’m a sucker for stylish characters delivering neat lines in dramatic scenes. I don’t require violence or tension necessarily. Humor is a must. And a touch of romance, in my view, makes everything better.

Mad Men, which ended its seven season run on AMC last Sunday, had everything going for it. Style, strong acting, and a dramatic arc that took viewers from the end of the Korean War to the quagmire of the Vietnam era. As history would have it, this allowed the writers to pick and choose from a smorgasbord of cultural phenomena, all of which added to the show’s curiously addictive appeal.

While I was initially hooked by the elegant opening sequence, which remained just as seductive in the final episode as it was in the first, the show’s use of music to underscore plot developments and character studies was unmatched. From the moment Amy Winehouse crooned “You Know I’m No Good” at the conclusion of the first episode, the template was set. I could have listened to her for the entire series. Somehow, her tragic death seemed to foreshadow the dark parabola of the show’s narrative direction.

Yet, week after week, year after year, I found it impossible to join the rabid fans who gushed about Don Draper’s irresistible charms. I can only assume that the character of the alpha male who bluffs his way to the top of a corporate hierarchy while women continually throw themselves at him must resonate with a lot of people.

He irked the hell out of me. But then, so did most of the male characters in the show. The carefree air of self-satisfied entitlement and male-chauvinist patronizing was all too familiar for any woman who experienced the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s in the United States. Maybe it was different in other countries.

But, that said, my hat’s off to Weiner for the female characters who battled their way through Mad Men. Each of them represented some aspect of the challenges women faced during those decades when women’s rights were still viewed as a kind of novelty by the majority of men in power.

True, Betty seemed a little psychotic at times. But after all, she smoked her way through seven seasons, and that stuff will kill you. Joan and Peggy fared a bit better, in spite of the shabby treatment they endured from most of the men they encountered along the way. But at least they fought the good fight and both of them emerged stronger at the end.

For a time part of my huffy attitude toward the show was lodged in the concept of advertising itself. Was I supposed to care about people who spent their lives writing advertising? I have a mute button and I know how to use it.

But my resistance eventually collapsed after a certain episode, one of many in which one of the writers pitches a campaign to a group of executives. Peggy stands in front of a group of skeptical men and tells them a story about a working mother trying to feed her family. And so compelling is her story that she draws them all into it, until they get it. For a moment they feel that transcendent lift that a good story delivers, when it allows the reader, or viewer, to see things from a different perspective.

In the end, that’s what the best stories and television shows do. We may not buy into the dubious premise that “Coke is it.” But when we see hundreds of fresh-faced people standing in the sunshine with bottles of sugar-saturated soft drink, we don’t care if it’s good or bad, because for one brief shining moment, perfect harmony seems only a sip away.

The Way We Live Now

Is this freedom or simply a roomy cage?
Is this freedom or simply a roomy cage?

Everyone reads Dickens in high school. Trollope not so much.

As an English major, I read a lot of literature. But somehow the works of Anthony Trollope never made the must-read list. I would pick up one of his dozens of classic novels and glance at the hundreds of pages of dense text and think, maybe some other time.

That time finally arrived last month when I was looking for a good long book to provide a portable door (thanks be to Tom Holt) through which to find respite from the exhausting realities of current problems. I was intrigued by the title: “The Way We Live Now.”

Anthony Trollope was born on April 24, 1815. The “now” in which his characters strive and scheme and pine is a far cry from the “now” of 2015. Thus, in some ways reading “The Way We Live Now” now was, for me, rather like watching one of those soporific BBC series in which a rigid sense of propriety locks all the characters into their places on the social scale.

Trollope’s writing style, however, offers surprising turns of wit and wisdom delivered with unhurried grace. Published in 1875, “The Way We Live Now” is driven by issues which remain relevant today: women’s rights, entrenched economic disparity, and the power of audacity to sway public opinion regardless of evidence. The story bustles with life. And there’s a good bit of romantic foolishness as well, with young women pining for handsome cads while worthy heroes suffer in silence.

The contrasts between the now of Trollope’s world and the now in which we live are too numerous to count, and perhaps modern people living in the First World feel secure enough in the embrace of technology to ignore the ideas of a writer so two centuries ago.

We moderns think we’re so free.

Yet in spite of all our jets and handheld gadgets and security surveillance, freedom remains a complex challenge. Freedom of movement, freedom of thought, freedom of speech — these concepts we cherish must be rooted in respect for the dignity and worth of all life on Earth, regardless of gender or ethnicity or religion or age. Without compassion for each other, all our so-called sophistication is worse than meaningless. It’s a fraud.

Thus wrote Anthony Trollope, and he wasn’t wrong.

“The Pearl That Broke Its Shell”

Among the millions of books available to the modern reader, there are books that educate, books that entertain, books that break your heart, and books that help to mend it.

My own selections tend to be based on my admittedly narrow focus on fiction. I avoid grisly horror, for instance, since I get my fill of that in the daily news. But even a diehard escapist occasionally feels drawn to read novels that deal with reality.

A few weeks ago I read a modern novel about the life of women in Afghanistan. I went into it with a kind of starry-eyed optimism. You know how it is. Book blurbs sometimes entice with vague marketing babble that obscures the real message of a book.

When I was considering whether or not to read Nadia Hashimi’s literary debut, “The Pearl That Broke Its Shell,” I skimmed through the reviews to see what to expect. I saw that Khaled Hosseini, the esteemed author of the powerful novel “The Kite Runner,” had described the new book as “a tender and beautiful family story.” Booklist described it as “spellbinding.”

I decided to give it a try.

And I was thoroughly engrossed from the first page to the last. Nashimi weaves a mesmerizing story of the struggles of two young Afghan women, born a century apart.

Set in Kabul in 2007, the story paints a devastating picture of the conditions for Afghan women living in the rural areas of that country, where men, and only men, decide who is allowed to move about freely, to hold a job, to be educated, to speak in public. Rahima is a young girl with a drug-addicted father in a family with no sons to chaperone the five daughters. As part of an ancient custom called bacha posh, Rahima is allowed to dress as a boy temporarily, so that she can help her mother, and as a result she is allowed to taste the freedoms that only boys have there. What follows, as the family is torn apart with the daughters virtually sold off as child brides to support the father’s drug addiction, is hardly what I would call a beautiful family story.

But then, I’m a spoiled western woman. Perspective is everything.

Women in the United States have made a lot of progress in terms of demanding equal pay for equal work, and access to education and healthcare. And women here still aren’t satisfied.

After reading “The Pearl That Broke Its Shell,” I was depressed to think of the habitual abuses women in some other countries have to endure.

And then this past week, a 27-year-old religious scholar in Kabul was beaten to death by a mob of men after she was falsely accused of burning the Quran.

Having just read Hashimi’s novel, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by this atrocity. But I was stunned, as I sincerely hope all the world is stunned by this monstrous behavior. The increasing violence towards women must be stopped, not only in Afghanistan, but in India and Pakistan and other countries where religious unrest and economic disparity drive men to acts of anger and desperation.

I think about the young girls in Afghanistan. The heroines of Nashimi’s novel are not so different from young women anywhere. They have hopes and dreams of happiness, even love, in spite of being trapped in a complex cultural situation from which there is no easy escape. Yet, even in the worst situations, people find hope in stories.

“The Pearl That Broke Its Shell” is such a story. Though it’s full of pain and suffering, the author offers some hope of a better future, not just for Afghan women, but for women everywhere.


Flown Away

Even raptors must feel the urge to nest.
Even raptors must feel the urge to nest.

Like birds on the wing, the flutter of opinions stirs the air we breathe. Try as we might to still our minds and think pure thoughts, currents of rage and sorrow and desire carry us far from the places we thought we were going, and we may wind up asking ourselves, as the Talking Heads so eloquently put it: “How did I get here?”

Recently I watched two very different films, each of which addresses the way humans struggle to control the direction of their own lives, and how they cope with the loss of it.

In “Birdman,” the Oscar-winning darkly funny study of egos clashing onstage and off, Michael Keaton delivers a riveting portrayal of a man whose dreams of artistic achievement were swept away by the hurricane force of his early commercial success in a movie franchise of a comic book superhero.

As a former Batman himself, Keaton’s credibility in the role of Riggan Thomson is never in question. Less certain is the artistic integrity of the character played by Edward Norton (a former Hulk, another irony-laden casting choice) who gives a vivid portrayal of the sort of actor who is most alive when pretending to be someone else.

It’s a fascinating movie about the human need to feel relevant. However, as Riggan’s damaged daughter, Emma Stone sums up the futility of the effort in a few passionate lines about how it feels to grow up in the age of Twitter and You-Tube, when anyone may suddenly acquire a million followers in the blink of an eye, yet still be profoundly lost.

I enjoyed “Birdman” in part because it’s the sort of film that allows viewers to feel compassion, while remaining comfortably detached from the problems of these self-obsessed characters. They’re all actors, after all. They’re not saving the world. They’re desperately seeking validation through applause and critical acclaim.

A totally different sort of the cinematic experience is presented in “Shun-li and The Poet,” an award-winning Italian film from 2011 about the struggle of a Chinese woman trying to reunite with her eight-year-old son. The story takes place near Venice, but it’s not the postcard-perfect Venice tourists flock to see. In a small tavern Shun-li waits on the fishermen who work the lagoons surrounding Venice. Most of them harbor deep distrust of foreigners. Shun-li tries to keep her head down and her hopes up that eventually she will pay off the debt she owes to her Chinese bosses. We feel for her, especially when she develops an innocent friendship with Bepi, a Yugoslavian, known to his fisher pals as “the poet” for his habit of rhyming. Alone among the other patrons of the cafe, Bepi shows Shun-li some kindness.

The film moves slowly, revealing the way lonely people find solace in their shared humanity. Poetry, spoken and visual, flows through the film. It left me feeling both sad and hopeful.

Much as I enjoy happy explosion movies where quippy heroes make the world safer for us all, at the end of the reel there’s the real to be faced. Still gritty, sometimes beautiful, often heartbreaking. A little poetry eases the transition.

To Light The Darkness

Sir Terry Pratchett spoke to a packed house in 2003 as part of his book tour for "Monstrous Regiment."
Sir Terry Pratchett spoke to a packed house in 2003 as part of his book tour for “Monstrous Regiment.”

The flags will be flying at half-mast all over the Discworld today.

Yesterday the grand master of satirical fantasy, Sir Terry Pratchett, died at the age of 66.

The author of more than 70 books published worldwide and beloved by millions of fans, Sir Terry wrote literature that defies classification. While best-known for his creation of Discworld, a sort of alternate universe complete with wizards, witches, trolls, dragons and all the traditional fixin’s of the fantasy genre, Sir Terry upended that world with his brilliant wit, droll social commentary, and engaging cast of characters.

One of his most endearing characters was Death, who always spoke in all caps, and had a mordant sense of humor that cut straight to the bone.

My explorations of Discworld began in the early ’90s, soon after I read “Good Omens,” Sir Terry’s collaboration with Neil Gaiman, in which a plucky gang of kids averts Armageddon. A familiar story these days, but back then it was fresh, and no one had ever done it with more dark humor and hope.

The Discworld series brims with characters struggling to fight crime, poverty, gender discrimination, blood feuds, religious nuts, and rogue magic—all in a day’s work for the Night Watch in Ankh-Morpork, the city that never sweeps.

I’m grieving today, because Terry Pratchett made me laugh. So much.

It would be hard to pick one favorite among all his books, though the top five would likely include “Soul Music,” in which a young man’s rock and roll dream takes an unlikely turn, “Reaper Man,” in which Death takes a holiday, “Mort,” in which Death takes an apprentice, and “Wyrd Sisters,” in which we meet Granny Weatherwax and her partner in outside-the-box thinking, Nanny Ogg, who breathe new life into the tired tropes of witchery.

For these and many more I am deeply grateful to Sir Terry. There are few writers about whose work I feel so passionate.  That’s why, when I learned in 2003 that he would be speaking in Washington, D.C., I had to go. At the time I lived in Fauquier County, a good hour’s drive away, and the event was on a weekday evening.

It was a gathering of fringe elements. Geeks and freaks who had been chuckling and grinning madly alone in their rooms for years emerged blinking into the light to offer praise to the master. The seats were filled with white-haired old ladies, blue-haired punks, obese loners hugging book bags stuffed with scribblings, lean academics and gnarly eccentrics, bubbly college girls and pimply adolescent boys with hungry eyes and insulting T-shirts.

The room was packed, standing room only. During the entire half-hour stage wait of buzzing anticipation the girl seated next to us read aloud without pause at breakneck speed from “Good Omens,” until finally we were delivered from her spell when a small man dressed all in black leather approached the podium.

And I was struck with a sudden horrible fear: what if TP turned out to be less than delightful? Of course I loved his writing, the dark fizzy outlook of his books, but what if in person he was small and mean? What if he was cold and self important? Or had an ugly voice? Or an annoying mannerism that dimmed his aura of perfection?

All these fears evaporated as he stood before the crowd—us cheering wildly, him raising his arms as if to raise the volume (which we did), then lowering them to get us to bring it down (which we did), then lifting one arm up and one down, to throw us into a state of confusion, where we merrily tumbled, cheering even louder. We loved him! We wanted to have his baby!

And when we obediently hushed, he began to talk, and his voice was perfect—English accent, but not snooty, more a kind of Python-ish shade of dry wit. He said so many funny insightful things in the next two hours that my smile muscles grew tired. He was kind, patient, wise, generous, and thoroughly entertaining.

Afterwards there was a book signing, a thing I usually avoid. But I wanted a chance to thank my hero for all the times his books had lifted the gloom that plagues my soul. So we got in line.

It was a long line. After the first hour, Sir Terry got up from his seat and walked in his stocking feet to the back of the long line to get a sense of how much work still lay ahead of him. As we neared the two hour mark we appeared to be no closer to him. Did I mention this was a school night? But I was determined, and I had given a lot of thought to what I would say. Just one line.

But when my turn finally came, and he reached for my book, he glanced up at me wearily and I was overcome with grief. I was so close, and he was too tired. I tried to say my line. He looked puzzled. He didn’t quite catch it. I repeated, “I wanted to thank you for lighting a flame-thrower in my life.”

Something jogged in his face. He looked up at me and said slowly, “Well, it’s better to light a flame-thrower…” I joined him to finish the line, “than to curse the darkness.”

I smiled as well as I could, holding back inexplicable tears. I owed this man so much. He lightened my sadness so many times.

In 2007, when he was diagnosed with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s, I grieved, knowing this was the beginning of the end. I lost my mother to the disease in 1995, but she lost her memory years before she died. I’ll never forget her.

Millions of readers around the world will never forget Sir Terry Pratchett.


About Face

Sometimes I just vant to be alone.
Sometimes I just vant to be alone.

Some years ago when I read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the incredible first novel by Dave Eggers, I was electrified by his lucid writing and awed by his ability to find humor in a true story of loss and struggle.

Since then, I’ve read some of his other books, but none stuck with me the way the first one did. Until now.

I just finished The Circle. Zing if you know what I’m talking about. Or hit “like” unless you are one of the handful of holdouts still hiding your face from Facebook. Good luck with that.

The Circle is a chilling Orwellian cautionary tale about the insatiable spread of social media. Anyone who has dipped a toe in the vast digital sea will recognize the symptoms of addiction, compulsion, and self-absorbed blindness that afflict Mae, the female protagonist. And while the plot veers toward the surreal, none of the ideas is far-fetched enough to be unbelievable. As Mae increasingly surrenders her privacy, her autonomy and her freedom in order to gain artificial status and the hollow fame that comes from being followed online by millions of “invisible friends,” her real life unravels while her virtual world expands.

The dark satire explores some of the deeply troubling aspects not only of Facebook and its ilk, but the entire spying, lying, couch-potato stalking aspects of “social” networks. The insidious spread of drone usage, the short-sighted maneuverings of political leaders, and the dramatic increase of economic disparity worldwide combine to create a toxic climate for all.

But to me the scariest part of the future Eggers so vividly conjures in The Circle, is the growing threat to privacy. Something is deeply askew when reading quietly alone in a room is viewed as an antisocial act. When taking a walk alone in the woods is considered selfish. When failing to respond to hundreds of unsolicited emails and texts and posts every day is taken as an act of rudeness.

As a writer, I cherish solitude. I need a certain amount of empty space in my life in order to think clearly. Other people thrive in a group dynamic. And that’s fine. For them.

But among the most vital human rights must be the right to choose how we spend our brief lives. Surely we should have the right to be alone with our thoughts from time to time.

To paraphrase E.M.Forster: Only disconnect!

The Sky of the Sky

What we see is what we get.
What we see is what we get.

I’ve been binge reading lately. Sometimes when I’m trying to avoid dwelling on some unfixable situation I plunge into the sea of fiction as a way to block out what can’t be managed.

This works for a while. But sooner or later the unwelcome reality I’m trying to escape rears its grim face in the very pages of whatever novel I’ve chosen as an escape mechanism.

When my mother died nearly twenty years ago I was unprepared for the crush of grief that hit me. Everyone experiences grief. But in our modern western culture we’re taught to keep our chins up, our emotions to ourselves, and to do whatever it takes to find “closure” with our sorrow. As if sorrow were some sort of limited time offer.

I was inexperienced at grief back then. So I thought time would work its magic and after a year or so I’d regain the spring in my step. But after two years went by and every day I was still feeling as if I were carrying a backpack loaded with cement, I began to wonder what was wrong with me.

At the time I was still working at a newspaper and trying to finish my college degree in my spare time. I was a crazed soccer mom, too, just to make sure there was never any free time to let my thoughts stray into the danger zone of the past. I was driven to reach closure, wherever the hell it was.

That spring, nearing the end of my marathon college education, the finish line was in sight. I needed only a few more credits. For one of them I enrolled in Comparative Religion 101. So many gods, so little time.

I was doing all right in the class, which was taught by an older man of Asian background. I didn’t totally understand the logic of the various belief systems we studied, but then logic rarely seems paramount with belief systems anyway.

Then one day the professor began talking about how different religions handle grief. And suddenly I was weeping uncontrollably in class.

I was embarrassed and apologetic. But the professor was very sympathetic. When I told him it had been two years already and I didn’t understand why I was so overcome, he told me that in his culture the standard time for grieving was three years. No one expected it to take less.

Well, that comforted me to some extent. I stopped thinking I was totally morbid and depressed and gave myself permission to feel sad. And that helped.

But in the past twenty years I’ve had a few refresher courses in grief, and I have a new relationship with it.

I don’t expect it to end. I hope I never forget the people I’ve loved. And if the price of that is some pain and sorrow now that they’re gone, then so be it. It was worth every ache to have shared time with them.

The friends and family I have lost live in my heart.  As e.e. cummings so memorably wrote:

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)

Safe Harbor

Troubles seem far away in the serene view from Safety Harbor, Florida.
Troubles seem far away in the serene view from Safety Harbor, Florida.

When the waters rise over your own doorstep, climate change hits home.

Politicians who view this critical issue as simply another chip in the electoral poker game are gambling not merely with their own careers, but with the future of our planet. And I, for one, am fed up.

The factors driving global warming have been well understood by scientists for decades. Back in 1970, the first Earth Day was a call for sanity. Yet our flagrant destruction of the environment and our rapacious consumption of oil and coal continue. Now, we stand on the brink of irreversible climate change. And still naysayers persist in their blinkered resistance to even modest efforts to reverse the trend.

Most notably, Rick “I am not a scientist” Scott, the current governor of Florida, which is widely viewed by the scientific community as one of the most vulnerable places in the country in terms of sea level rising, has gone on record with his denial. Scott has said, “I’ve not been convinced that there’s any man-made climate change. Nothing’s convinced me that there is.”


Belief is a curious thing. If you believe some deity has everything under control, I suppose you sleep better. But if you’re paying attention to the data here on Earth, you may, at the very least, consider building your own ark.

Those who believe in modern science, and are grateful for medicines and airplanes and safe drinking water, to name just a few nifty science-based ideas, would like to see more emphasis on rational thought in our government.

Admittedly, it’s tough to be rational when you’re human. I know. I’m as irrational as the next person. I’d like to believe there’s a happy ending for every story, a perfect solution to every problem, a safe harbor for all the ships at sea.

But these days there are new pirates, and not only at sea. In our internet dominated world, invisible pirates can steal property, identities, and undermine security. The unsettling result of this sort of piracy is that it fuels a kind of knee-jerk paranoia. We don’t trust our government, our law enforcement, our banks. Yet it’s human nature to want something to trust, to desire community, to seek fellowship with our fellow humans.

Many humans rally around religious beliefs, which seems like a fine idea, until intolerance sets in. However, on the subject of global warming we really have to get over our intolerance of each other. We’re all in this thing together. When the seas rise, as they will sooner rather than later, we, or our children, will have to share whatever dry land remains.

On the west coast of Florida, where millions of people retire, lured by balmy temperatures, flat terrain, and low prices, life is quiet. Palm trees and pelicans define the landscape. Yet in the not so distant past the west coast of Florida was regularly terrorized by pirates. In the late 18th and early 19th century the threat of pirate attacks was real, so much so that the small city of Safety Harbor earned its name because it was situated so far from the pirates’ habitual route that it was considered a safe harbor.

These days the pirate history is celebrated with an annual festival in Tampa and Safety Harbor. Pirates, like parrots and piña coladas, are just part of the tropic ambience served up to tourists.

Picturesque cottages on the quiet streets of historic Safety Harbor offer a glimpse of Florida's charming past.
Picturesque cottages on the quiet streets of historic Safety Harbor offer a glimpse of Florida’s charming past.

The town of Safety Harbor is quaint in places. Giant trees draped with Spanish moss shade the historic district, where pockets of old Florida remain hidden behind newer super-sized waterfront development.

The town is 20 feet above sea level. For now.