I Promise You Won’t Suffer Reading This Wonderful Book

 

I met Gail Storey online back in 2010 when I started blogging on this website. She found it somehow, and once in a while would comment on my blogs. She, too, was a contemplative hiker of sorts, she’d  say, and then told me a little bit about her hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. She’d even written a book about the experience. It took me a couple of years, but I finally got around to reading it a couple of months ago.

I don’t know what took me so long. It’s certainly the genre I enjoy reading. I love adventure non-fiction that takes places on trails and mountains. Some of my favorite authors of that genre are Jon Krakauer (Into Thin Air), Joe Simpson (Touching the Void, The Beckoning Silence) and Cheryl Strayed (Wild). I love reading stories where the writer overcomes a fear or obstacle and is transformed. In that sense, I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed with I Promise Not to Suffer.

Gail begins her story with a clue of where the trajectory of her transformation may land. “I never much cared for nature,” she writes, “or rather, thought it okay as long as it stayed outside.” Unlike Krakauer and Simpson, Gail is not a professional athlete or a seasoned mountaineer or hiker. She’s a professional writer. Her account of her hike on the PCT is from the perspective of a normal person doing something extraordinary. Like Bill Bryson in the first chapter of “A Walk in the Woods”, she too, has normal trepidation about what the experience may entail.

So why does Gail hike the PCT? Because her husband Porter, a rather outdoorsy and adventure-loving sort, decides to resign from his job and do the 2,700 hike. She goes with him because, well, she can’t stand the thought of sitting at home worrying about him for six months.

Gail and Porter’s trek on the PCT is not surprisingly without complications. Gail’s mother is dying of cancer and Gail calls her at often from their stops in town. Porter is trying to figure out what he’s going to do in his career after he’s finished with his hike (and before the hike, while he was still working, all he thought about was doing the hike!). There are the usual hardships of the trail – long miles, sore muscles, discomfort, fatigue, unbearable heat followed by unbearable cold. Gail’s telling of the story is full of heart and vulnerability, but isn’t so splayed out as to make the reader feel voyeuristic (think Eat, Pray, Love). She tells us about how she worries she’s holding Porter back from hiking faster, and how she’s often complaining about the horrible wind and the deep snow and of her ability to handle things when they get way harder. She’s not exaggerating, either. In one memorable scene, Gail almost gets blown off a cliff in the middle of the night while huddled in her sleeping bag.

Gail is petite and lightweight, but not fragile. She decides she’s going to continue the trek with Porter despite the fatigue and weather challenges. He wonders if it wouldn’t be better if she went home and let him finish on his own. He worries about her and doesn’t want her to get hurt or worse. He is torn, and implores her to consider stopping. She refuses, and implores him that she wants to continue, that as difficult as it is, she can’t imagine leaving.The trail and Nature herself has done a number on her. She becomes addicted to the trail, to the beauty, to the wilderness, to the rawness of it all. She wants to carry on, and besides, she promises not to suffer from now on.

I was riveted by some of the challenges Gail and Porter faced in the Sierra Nevada mountains in late spring. The story is a page turner, because even though you know they survive the journey (well at least you’re sure Gail does), you’re not sure if they finish or how they’ll navigate certain obstacles that Gail warns the reader about. Will Gail finish the entire hike? Will Porter? What about some of the people they meet on the trail along the way?

What I liked most about I Promise Not to Suffer was that Gail didn’t take herself too seriously, and certain passages made me laugh out loud. She describes the dread she feels about having to do certain sections of the trail, and you can’t help but wonder how you’d feel if you were facing the same thing. She isn’t smug, or flippant, or boastful. She isn’t whiny, either. When you read this story you tell yourself that you wish you could do the PCT and feel the things Gail felt, but at the same time you think, hell no, I couldn’t put myself through all that crazy shit.

I Promise Not to Suffer is the kind of story that makes you wistful when it’s over. You don’t want it to end. You want Gail to take you on another adventure, and another.  It’s a great read when you’re feeling stir-crazy on a cold winter night and all those glorious summer hikes are still many, many months away.

 

Hiking and Weight Loss

Before (year ago)

A subject I haven’t broached yet on this blog is the idea that hiking is great way to stay fit because it’s enjoyable and grounding in way that standing on the elliptical for an hour at the gym is not.

Notice what I didn’t say: I didn’t say that hiking was a great way to lose weight. At least, not permanently, or not at all, if you expect that by hiking miles each week you’ll magically start shedding fat.

In recent months I’ve been devouring books and research on diets and permanent fat loss. Last December, I signed myself and my daughter up for some personal training. My intention at the time was to help her get in better cardiovascular shape for hiking, and to maybe lose a few pounds myself (Ok, maybe more than a few). It was around this time that I started wondering, why is it so easy for me to maintain a higher weight than I’d like, but so difficult to maintain a weight that’s oh, 30 pounds lighter? Why can’t I reset my “set point” without starving or exercising like a maniac?

I’m certainly no stranger to regular exercise. Five years ago I was running half-marathons. Those took up a lot of time to train for, so I gave up long distance running in lieu of hiking, and while I was doing research for my book, I would hike 12-15 miles per week. I kept this up for more than a year, because even after I was finished with my research, I was leading group hikes through my MeetUp. In between hikes, I’d take long walks, jog, and work out at the gym. I love exercise and love being outside more. I was doing something active at least six days a week.

But still, I was 30 pounds overweight. So something wasn’t jiving.

I thought I was eating healthfully, and not too much. For breakfast, I’d usually have a bowl of oatmeal with almonds and soymilk, or a bowl of high-fiber, low-sugar cereal with soymilk; for lunch it was usually leftovers from dinner the night before, like some kind of meat, pasta, rice and veggie. My favorite meal for dinner was a big salad with goat cheese and glazed nuts and some crusty artisan bread. Man, I loved crusty bread from Whole Foods. I also liked nonfat frozen yogurt, and made that a favorite treat at least once or twice a week. I never ate what I considered junk food (Doritos, donuts, poptarts, sodas and fries) and eating out was usually where we could order lots of veggies or lean meats – like Tokyo Joe’s, Rubios, or Sweet Tomatoes soup and salad buffet.

Because I thought I was doing all the right things, I resigned myself to never looking and feeling my optimum. I simply did not want to spend the rest of my life obsessing about food, running 6 miles a day and feeling hungry all the time—which is what I had to do when I weighed a lot less and fit into a size 2.

One day I was at Natural Grocers and noticed a book by the check-out stand: “Why We Get Fat” by Gary Taubes. I’m so glad I picked it up that day. I finished it two days later. That book completely rocked my world! At first, when got through most of the book and I learned the “why”, I was shocked. I said, surely THIS can’t be the answer?? It felt both too difficult to do and not necessarily new information. It sounded like Atkins, but worse – what it meant was that for my metabolism type, I had to not only give up any form of sugar, including honey and agave, I had to give up all manner of starch, including grains, corn, beans and gulp…crusty bread.  Forever. Waaaaaaahhhhh!!!

I don’t like to back down from a challenge. So at the beginning of February, I gave up all sugar and starch, all fruit except berries, and ate mostly meat, eggs, cheese, non-starchy vegetables (lots of leafy greens), full fat greek yogurt, and nuts. What a paradigm shift! To go from non-fat oatmeal with nuts and soymilk in the morning to 3 eggs over a bed of spinach with some meat on the side, cooked in butter or coconut oil, no less! I couldn’t believe I could actually lose weight eating this way.

Lunches and dinners were much less challenging, but I sure did miss my pasta and bread.

After doing much reading and research (list below) I also learned why hiking alone isn’t necessarily a vehicle for fat or weight loss. I was simply unconsciously eating slightly more throughout the week to compensate for the calories I was burning while hiking. I didn’t think I was, but I was. Plus, I was eating the WRONG kind of calories – lots of—you guessed it—whole grains along with the occasional sugars and nonfat frozen yogurt.

During (current)

To date, I’ve lost close to 30 pounds of fat, gained back lots of muscle with resistance training, and can now fit into a junior size 11 shorts. I feel healthier, my hair is thicker, my sleep is better and I need less of it, I’m energized all the time, my acid reflux is gone, and the best part? I don’t feel hungry between meals. In fact, I can go much longer between meals than ever before. No more grazing every 2-1/2 hours.

Now that I’ve awakened to the facts of metabolic syndrome, I’m a little angry at what my medical establishment has been pushing on me and everyone else for years. All that whole wheat bread and pasta, and all that brown rice wasn’t doing me any good. Those potatoes, too, skin or no skin, butter or no butter, weren’t doing me any good. In fact, just about anything that spikes insulin was ruining my metabolism, and it didn’t matter if it was simple or “whole grain” – it was wrong for my body.

And as for hiking and exercise? The contemplative aspect of being in nature is both grounding and mood-enhancing. The cardiovascular aspect of hoofing it up and down hills is good for your muscles, heart and lungs. There are many benefits to contemplative hiking. But weight loss isn’t necessarily one of them. It’s just one more reason we don’t need to race to the top.

 

Recommended books:

Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes

Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes

Wheat Belly by William Davis, MD

The Science of Slim by Jonathan Bailor

 

Recommended websites:

http://www.waroninsulin.com

http://thesmarterscienceofslim.com/

http://rawfoodsos.com/

http://chriskresser.com/beyondpaleo

Recommended documentaries:

Fathead (get it on Netflix or Hulu)

UPDATE: April 15, 2013 (One year later)

The other day someone wrote me asking what my progress has been on this low-carb way of life since a year ago. Have I kept the weight off? Have I stuck to this way of eating?

The answer is yes. I have kept the weight off and have even gained a fair amount of muscle, thanks to a steady regimen of resistance training. I have remained very healthy, my blood lipid numbers are ideal (high HDL and very low triglycerides, the lowest of my life) and my heartburn issues are non-existent. I haven’t had so much as a cold since I started this plan, but then again I hadn’t had a cold in 3 years, so I think my immune system is strong anyway.

I don’t eat grains, starchy vegetables, beans or sugars of any kind. I don’t eat soy in any form, either.

What I appreciate most about this Primal/low-carb way of eating is that I don’t feel hungry all the time, I’m not obsessing about food, and my cravings for carbs have subsided greatly. I don’t count calories. I just eat when I’m hungry and end up only eating 3 meals a day as a result, with maybe one small snack in between. My weight is rock steady now. It doesn’t matter if I go a day with a lot of exercise and not much food, or a day of overindulgence (in quantity, not junk) because of the holidays or whatever—my weight isn’t easy to budge. This is a revelation for me, because when I was on the low-calorie, low-fat diet seven years ago I was constantly hungry and couldn’t even have one indulgence meal without my weight fluctuating upwards instantly, and I felt like I was starving myself most of the time.

I really can’t go back to being mostly a vegetarian, anyway. When I was eating that way, I was ingesting a lot of starches like oatmeal, whole wheat breads and pastas, rice, potatoes and beans. I had to – how else could I get enough calories and protein? I believe that way of eating would spike my blood sugar constantly and contributed to my metabolic syndrome. Had I not gone on this low-carb lifestyle, I would have developed Type 2 diabetes for sure. It runs in my family and that means I’m pre-disposed.

I’ve learned a lot in the last 18 months, but the most eye-opening thing I’ve learned is that saturated fat in the absence of starch and carbohydrates is benign and even good for you. This is why the SAD diet (Standard American Diet) is so unhealthy. People eat fatty foods in combination with bread, noodles, cereal and french fries. THAT is what’s going to give you heart disease, because starches and sugars are inflammatory. If you’re going to eat a lot of carbs, you better also avoid saturated fat and eat low-fat in general.

Everyone is different. People come from different genealogical backgrounds. You have to find what’s right for you. I’m from northern Europe, so I can’t eat like a person born in the tropics of India or South America. My ancestors didn’t crow corn, beans or rice or eat pasta. We were meat, dairy, potato and vegetable eaters, who enjoyed fruit when it was in season (August-October), mushrooms and berries picked from the woods, and occasionally bread made from rye and un-hybridized wheat.

I think many people in our modern culture have lost track of who they are and where they come from. We are bound to our biology, whether we like it or not. We have not transcended nature, we are nature. We are animals. We are adapted to where we have evolved for thousands of years, even if we were born across the globe from our ancestors. We seem to want to deny these facts, which is one more symptom of our disconnection from nature and our denial of interconnectedness.

Review of the book “Nature Principle” by Richard Louv

For some of us, the need for studies and research to prove what we already know in our hearts to be true—that spending time in nature is good for us—may seem a bit silly and unnecessary. But for author Richard Louv, it’s a way to substantiate his claim that kids aren’t the only ones suffering from nature deficit disorder. Adults need nature, too. Lots of evidence to follow…

In his best-selling book, “Last Child In the Woods” Louv proclaimed that more than ever, children were suffering from what he calls “nature-deficit disorder.” Children are spending less time playing out of doors, more time in front of electronic devices, and therefore are being denied the physical, emotional and intellectual benefits of a relationship with the natural environment. After the book became a best-seller, Louv was approached by fans and readers who wanted to point out, “You know, adults need nature, too.”

Louv agreed, and “The Nature Principle” became his next book.

I attended a public talk by Louv a few months ago in Boulder. I listened to a man who was obviously a seasoned journalist and perhaps a very cerebral person, describe ways in which his time in nature changed and molded him. The most important point he made during the talk, which he didn’t make strongly enough in his book in my opinion, was that in order for us to move into a new paradigm and get away from the “doom and gloom” of apocalyptic visions for the future of humanity, we need a solid, positive vision of what the future should hold. In other words, we need something to work toward, not run away from. What does a nature-infused, sustainable society look like, specifically? The book offers glimpses, and certainly stays away from doom and gloom, but the glimpses are just that – short vignettes here and there. There isn’t a larger, integrated vision. But there doesn’t need to be, because that’s not what Louv’s intent was in writing the book.

After listening to him speak in person and reading his book, Louv doesn’t strike me as a particularly “frou frou” person or someone who drips with poeticism and abstract thought. Therefore, it came as no surprise that his book isn’t the kind I’d cozy up to or read for spiritual inspiration. It is written in line with the modern pseudo-psychology genre popular these days, similar to books by Malcolm Gladwell. In fact, The Nature Principle reads much like a combination between a graduate term paper and a script for a documentary.

In each chapter of the book, Louv doesn’t just offer anecdotal evidence or personal observations, although those resonated with me best, he also cites study after study to prove that:

1. Nature is good for our intellect, our spirit, our creativity and our physical well-being.

2. Nature can be many things, and one doesn’t need to go far to experience it.

3. People who have a close relationship to nature are more likely to want to protect it.

4. Biomimicry and a new paradigm of living in nature, as opposed to suppressing or controlling it, is the salvation for humanity.

He understands that a paradox exists in human’s relationship to nature. On one hand, we are about as disconnected from our true nature and from the nature around us as we have ever been as human beings. We don’t grow our own food, don’t hunt for a living, barely experience the weather in our climate-controlled homes and offices, and rarely venture outside on any given day. On the other hand, we need nature more than ever. Our very survival is at stake. He states, “The natural world’s benefits to our cognition and health will be irrelevant if we continue to destroy the nature around us. However, that destruction is assured without a human connection to nature.”

While he doesn’t cite any studies that show that not spending time in nature causes disease and depression, he does cite many studies that show that doing just about anything in a natural setting improves mood and physical health. In 2006, for example, the Harvard School of Public Health reported that seven Colorado counties –most along the Continental Divide—were the top-rated in terms of life expectancy of its residents. Louv’s interpretation of this study is that there may be a correlation with living in a rural, scenic setting (such as Breckenridge and Steamboat Springs) and well-being.  While I myself don’t deny the regenerative aspects of hanging out in the mountains, and the invigorating qualities of taking a walk in the woods, I have to ask, why are we conducting all these studies? Do we need a study to tell us, for example, that having friends makes us happier? That being loved is good for our state of mind? That eating fresh fruits and vegetables is healthy?

Apparently, we do.

The ability to offer intrinsic, peer-reviewed evidence about the benefits of a walk in the woods or living near a scenic, natural setting by showing the correlation between environmental health and human health, makes it easier to quantify nature in terms of monetary value, or dollars. This, in turn, makes it easier to present a case to government and other agencies that we should make room for parks and open space or to not cut down forests or shave mountains for minerals and fuel. While I grudgingly agree that this is unfortunately the reality, I don’t like it. I don’t need a study to tell me how depressing it’s going to be when all the big predatory mammals are extinct in 50 years, or how much better I feel when I exercise on a trail versus in the gym. I don’t like that we are continuing to think of nature in terms of dollars instead of thinking of nature as a part of us and as something fundamentally necessary to our very existence. Do we need a study to tell us that having air is a good thing? That sunshine is a key component of life on earth? That without our skin, we’d be dead?

Thinking of nature in terms of dollars only helps proliferate the insane notion that “jobs” are more important than a healthy environment and that “progress” means turning natural resources into personal or corporate wealth. It seems to dismiss the feeling we have as humans that it’s better to have a beautiful, natural, clean place to live than to live in chaos and pollution surrounded by concrete.

It’s not Richard’s Louv’s fault. He’s well-intentioned and is one of the few people to tackle this important topic, which is that we have lost our way and turned our backs from the very essence of ourselves, and we are turning a very dangerous corner as a result. Our action and in-action has not just doomed us, it has doomed millions of species of plants and animals that co-habitate this planet with us. War, poverty, politics, the economy – none of this will matter when we’re too hungry and too sick to do anything about it.

Louv mentions several people in the book who decided to sell their city homes and move to the country, where apparently they experienced the bliss they had been missing their entire lives. This isn’t for everyone. I know many people who would prefer to live in the hustle and bustle of a major metropolitan area than contemplate trees in the country. I myself feel the call to live more in connection nature, in a place where the loudest sounds are bird chirps and the rustling of the wind through the pines and junipers. For personal reasons, these stories were the most inspiring parts of the book for me. I also liked when Louv took a break from citing studies and interviewing people and just talked about his own experiences and insights. The vulnerability of these passages lent the book a bit of authenticity and heart, which I appreciated.

Although the subject matter of this book is near and dear to my heart, and I agree wholeheartedly with Louv’s thesis and musings, the style of writing felt tiresome after a while. Louv introduces us to dozens and dozens of individuals, often a new one each paragraph, to illustrate the points he’s trying to make. Here’s a woman who is living a very sustainable life in a suburb…here’s a man who’s done a marvelous job connecting families with nature…here’s a couple who went for it and bought a farm in the country and are now dedicated to preserving nature for others… The list is long, and it doesn’t make for a satisfying read. It feels like overkill for something that you “got” five paragraphs into the chapter. For the cerebral, logical types who need to see charts and statistics, this will be gratifying. But for me, it smacked of the same choppy pacing of a reality show with fast-forward zooms and punchy editing.

Toward the end of the book, Louv laments that there aren’t any educational choices for people who want to learn how to connect people with nature. I disagree, obviously, having attained a masters’ degree in ecopsychology from Naropa. Naropa used to have an excellent Wilderness Therapy program, which incorporated outdoor education with the principles of ecopsychology. I know that Naropa isn’t the only accredited school that is offering these kinds of programs. Of all the research Louv had done, he definitely overlooked this one.

Overall, The Nature Principle is a good read for someone looking for a few good reasons to get outdoors and experience nature, or needing hard evidence to cite for others who aren’t so inclined. I suspect, however, that Louv is preaching to the choir on this one. The only audience for this book is probably one that’s already well-aware of the human-nature connection.

 

 

Book Signing at the Boulder Bookstore

Join me, Margaret Emerson, and author Carolyn Baker at the Boulder Bookstore on May 4th for a discussion and book signing!

WHERE:
Boulder Bookstore
1107 Pearl Street, Boulder Colorado

WHEN:
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
7:30 p.m.

COST: FREE!

SPONSORED BY: Boulder Bookstore and Transition Colorado

Margaret Emerson

 

I will be reading from my book, Contemplative Hiking Along the Colorado Front Range, and talking about ways to reconnect with nature and cultivate mindfulness while hiking.

If you enjoy exploring the trails around Denver and Boulder, you’ll love the essays and suggested activities in my book. My book will help you explore more than just the outer landscape—you’ll learn how to explore your inner landscape by asking yourself deeper questions and searching for real meaning in our complicated, busy lives.

Carolyn Baker

Carolyn Baker will discuss her newest book, Navigating the Coming Chaos: A Handbook for Inner Transition.

The collapse of industrial civilization, well underway since at least 2007, presents humankind with unprecedented and daunting challenges in the area of energy, environment, and economics. Navigating The Coming Chaos provides a toolkit of emotional and spiritual preparation for an uncertain future. It offers us an opportunity to step across an evolutionary threshold in order to become a new kind of human being living in conscious self-awareness of our intimate connection with all life in the universe.

Review of the Novel “Witch of Hebron” by James Howard Kunstler

The Witch of Hebron cover imageThis book is an extremely fast-paced, plot-driven sequel to Kunstler’s “World Made by Hand” that offers more insight into what the author thinks (or hopes) will happen after the collapse of industrial civilization in America. I attended a book signing by the author for this book, where he proclaimed that the story was about the “re-enchantment” of the world after the humm and distraction of modern technology vanishes. The re-enchantment takes on a religious tone, as an intentional community of young Christian believers settles into Union Grove, working industriously to set up an economy of craft and agriculture there. The leader of the clan, a man named Brother Jobe, is a dichotomy of good and evil. One moment he’s quoting scripture or offering haven to a woman in despair, the next minute he’s resentful and wishing her dead. Brother Jobe reflects the true nature of Nature and Man in this way: holding all possibilities at once, neither all good nor all evil, neither consistently dangerous or benign.

The characters in the book in fact all display the capability of both good and evil deeds: the child that performs a vengeful and destructive act later redeems himself by saving a life. The bandit who seems to rescue the protagonist from an injustice later murders in cold blood. The wife who has been unfaithful for years becomes the repentant and loved wife. Nature, too, holds both a place of benevolence and violence, of mystery and monotony. The re-enchantment of the world means that anything can happen, that tragedy can become salvation and salvation can bring death.

There are a few things that disturbed me about Kunstler’s vision of post-collapse America. As Carolyn Baker wrote in her review, he seems to think that women will revert back to 18th century roles in the future. Every female character in the book is very one-dimensional: a wife who cooks and cleans, a goddess, a witch, a nun, a prostitute. The most interesting female character (the witch of Hebron) has nothing interesting to say. Her short responses and comments seem almost naive and childish. The way the author describes her garments and hair is more memorable than what he has her say. Either this is Kunstler’s subconscious projection about women, or he just doesn’t know women. Women in this book don’t make decisions for others, don’t have creative ideas, don’t tell men what to do. They are simply there to serve the male protagonists in a culinary, medical or sexual capacity.

The other disturbing thing was Kunstler’s sexualization of children. This, in fact, disturbed me more than the sexism. He writes about 12-year olds having sexual contact with each other as if it’s a good, wholesome thing. He interjects pedophilia here and there, some of it shocking and horrible and some of it almost casual. Does Kunstler have children? I don’t think so. Not only does he not understand women, he doesn’t seem to understand children or what they’re like at age 12, either. (I do.)

Overall, I enjoyed World Made by Hand much more than the Witch of Hebron. It was a richer, better crafted novel with more developed characters. There are times in Witch that Kunstler seems impatient, almost bored with his own writing, because the chapters are so short and punchy the story gets hurled along sometimes on just dialogue. Is this a literary vehicle, a technique done on purpose for a reason? Is he trying to say that things are getting simpler, and simpler, and simpler? I don’t know. Maybe. All I know is that I NOTICED it, and as any good reader worth her salt would say, if you notice the technique, it ain’t all that good.

What Have We Done With Our Freedom, Anyway?

Book Review: “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen

There’s something satisfying about the fact that Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom is currently the #3 best selling hardcover fiction book in the U.S., according to the New York Times. Franzen spent ten years writing Freedom and the result is not just an extraordinary piece of literature but an often unflattering snapshot of twenty-first century American values. He indulges his view of politics, the economy and capitalism through both main and minor characters in this fast-paced but gracefully-written novel. He communicates his view of the world through pages of diatribe about the destruction of natural resources, corrupt capitalistic greed and overpopulation’s culpability in just about everything that’s wrong with the world. Knowing that this is a book that people are perhaps recommending to each other enough to sell that many copies makes me feel less anxious about the current state of environmentalism in this country. If this book is flying off the book shelves and Franzen is being hailed as “The Great American Novelist” on the cover of Time Magazine, it must be making a lot of people feel good, or at least, validated. And that could mean that a lot of people at least agree with what Franzen is trying to say through the characters in this book, particularly through the protagonist Walter Berglund.

Walter is a lawyer who manages a trust for the protection of a little blue songbird. Walter, a naïve-idealist-turned-angry-activist, likes to believe he sees the dark truth behind everyone’s motives, except he fails to see the motives of those closest to him. He is an imperfect Good Guy who rides his bicycle to work, disciplines his kids by the book, is devoted to his wife and has no sins except perhaps contempt for those who don’t share his world view, and a concealed longing for his beautiful young assistant. He is always trying to do the right thing, something that is for the common good, not just for the good of one person, one corporation or one species. His lifelong vocation is to convince the world’s young people that overpopulation is killing the planet and that the only way to preserve the beauty and diversity of Earth is to limit how early and how often they procreate. He wants to make wanting less more cool.

Walter and his best friend since college, the self-centered but charismatic musician Richard Katz, are like Cain and Abel. They don’t know why they have remained friends for as long as they have, or why they’re so drawn to each other, being that they’re so different both ideologically and otherwise. Perhaps it’s because they each crave the qualities so lacking in the other: the way productivity craves irresponsibility, intellectualism craves creativity, stability craves passion. Their relationship completes them in this way. And yet, like the biblical story of the Good and Bad Brother that’s wrought with jealousy and competitiveness, one ends up ultimately betraying the other.

In fact, almost all the characters in this book are faced with one kind of moral and ethical dilemma after another. Should I cheat on my spouse? Should I go for the money or for the honor? Should I do what feels good to me or what feels good to the one who loves me? Should I betray my best friend or stay true to my heart? Despite what the moral dilemma is, the underlying theme that Franzen seems to be injecting on every page is “self-interest versus the common good”. He is examining the very definition of the word freedom, both personal and political. What does freedom mean to us, but more importantly, what have we done with it, both in our personal lives and as a country? Franzen was recently quoted in an interview:

“There is a vulgar notion of American freedom, according to which people wish to be left alone and they almost say: “Keep out.” There’s this deeply anti-communitarian streak among my fellow countrymen. You see this now with the Tea Party movement, which rejects the notion of a common good.”

My favorite passage in the book is a tense conversation between Walter and a neighbor, whose cat has been killing songbirds by the dozens on his rural property. Walter has spent half his career working to restore songbird habitat, and he knows part of the problem is that millions of birds are killed every year by feral cats or, in this particular case, domestic ones who are allowed to roam freely outdoors. When he sees this happening on his own property, it infuriates him, and he appeals to the cat’s owner, his “Evangelical” neighbor, to put an end to it.

“I know you love your cat. And if he would just stay in your yard, that would be fine. But this land actually belonged to the birds before it belonged to us. And it’s not like there’s any way that we can tell the birds that this is a bad place to try to next. So they keep coming here, and they keep getting killed. And the bigger problem is that they’re running out of space altogether, because there’s more and more development. So it’s important that we try to be responsible stewards to this wonderful land we’ve taken over.”

“Well, I’m sorry,” Linda said, “but my children matter more to me than the children of some bird. I don’t think that’s an extreme position, compared to yours. God gave this world to human beings, and that’s the end of the story as far as I’m concerned.”

In this exchange, I cheer Walter and feel chagrin with the neighbor because she seems so illogical and self-centered. Walter isn’t asking her to harm her children, he’s simply asking her to keep her cat indoors during the summer. Yet, she persists in twisting the logic and thus appears to be completely heartless and unintelligent. To be fair, I don’t get to know what her background is or why she thinks the way she does. I do, however, know Walter’s background and I understand why he’s having this conversation. This brings up something important: That there are two sides to every story, as one of Franzen’s characters likes to believe when he’s unable to explain his motives to his children and it strains his relationship with them. But most of the stories in the book are one-sided. As a matter of fact, at first Franzen seems to pass judgment on certain types of people without examining their side at all, and it’s so blatant you wonder if he isn’t doing it on purpose. All capitalists care about is money, not people or nature. Really? All musicians are womanizers and irresponsible. Always? Evangelicals or conservatives don’t care about the environment. How so?

To further challenge the reader’s sense of fairness, Franzen anoints his characters with various forms of personality disorder: the borderline Eliza, the co-dependent Connie, the narcissistic Joey, the sociopathic Kenny.  These characters are one-dimensional and yet fascinating, attesting to our culture’s propensity to produce such dysfunctional people and our insatiable thirst for the dramatic and peculiar. We want to dislike them but we suspect it’s not their fault. They’ve been damaged or misled by someone or something, and they’re doing the best they can with what they know.

In the end, though, we see the complexity behind the main characters’ motives, and we remember that, of course, no one is truly all good or all bad. Freedom also challenges us to examine our own relationship with that word, and whether looking out for number one, as we are socialized to do in this culture, is really serving us in the long run.

Stephen King – The Environmentalist?

Under the Dome book coverI just finished Stephen King’s 1,000-plus fat brick of a novel entitled “Under the Dome.” I haven’t read a Stephen King book since putting down “Insomnia” half-way through sometime back in the 90s. As a kid and college student, I devoured his novels, but grew out of them and grew bored with the way King would start out with a fascinating concept and then always take things a little too far.

Under the Dome didn’t suffer from that. Under the Dome is a page-turner to the very last page. I haven’t been this addicted to a book since reading The Memory of Running several years ago. I would take this absurdly thick book with me to the gym, read while eating breakfast and lunch, and on several nights it would follow me up to bed, where I would gobble up a few more pages before turning in.

The premise is what got my attention in the first place, and why I ordered the book in its bulky and unabridged hardcover form. A small town of about 2,000 people in Maine is suddenly and inexplicably sealed off from the world by an invisible force field that allows nothing to penetrate – in or out. That’s the predicament, and what follows is a study of human nature when faced with being cut off from everything that will sustain them.

To me, the dome was an allegory. Apparently some of the reviewers of the book on Amazon agree with me. The dome could be climate change. It could be resource depletion. It could be peak oil. It could be all of the above. When the townspeople finally grasp the reality of their entrapment and the power goes out what do they do? They go on living pretty much the same way (although they plug in their TVs and appliances into propane powered generators). They tell themselves it will all get resolved soon and the government will “do something.”

The government does do something. Their knee-jerk response is—you guessed it—military and explosive. It does more harm than good, however, since nothing—not even bombs and missles—can permeate the dome. Conspiracy theories abound. People point fingers and assign blame. The national media turns it into a 7/24 talking head circus. Certain people in authority begin to plot their corrupt rise to power with the cover of doing “for the good of the town.”

But I’ll tell you what people WEREN’T doing. No one was asking how they would get through the next several weeks or months if indeed the “techno fix” didn’t work. No one turned off their generator to save on fuel and keep the air inside the dome clean. No one made a run for the grocery store, or conducted meetings on how to acquire fresh water without electricity. Instead, the townsfolk concerned themselves with more banal matters: politics, gossip, and matters of ego.

Cooperation and a community spirit is almost lacking. No one is thinking long-term except a couple of the main characters, but it’s only background static to what they’re dealing with from moment to moment.

I found myself wanting to shake someone and tell them to wake the f*** up and smell the coffee, pretty soon they’re going to suffocate themselves and run out of water if they don’t start dealing with the situation. But alas…

Everything that happens under the dome happens not because of the dome, but because of how the townspeople react to it. It happens because of greed, ignorance, ego and a quest for power (for the sake of power).

I have no idea how much of his personal philosophy King injected into the book, but I had as much fun trying to find out as I did following the fast-paced plot. When the evil antagonist turns out to be a right-wing fundamentalist Christian who refers to environmentalists as “bleeding heart liberal tree-huggers” I can’t help but smile. There are many snippets throughout the book where that same antagonist is described as a city government official who had no qualms about allowing a Wal-Mart to be constructed, but ignored the question of whether or not there was too much gray water being dumped into the local streams. One of his last rants before he finally expires at the end of the book is about how “it’s always something!” If it’s not climate change, it’s nuclear fallout. If it’s not concern for the ozone layer, it’s something else. When confronted by the reality of a poisonous air outside the bunker where he’s holed up, he waves it off with impatience, no doubt out of guilt and denial, as he bore most of the blame for the disaster.

“It’s just smog! It’ll clear.”

Unfortunately for him, it doesn’t clear, and he dies as soon as he sucks in his first breath of it.

Stephen King, you turned out alright.