[excerpt from Chapter 9 of The Age of Consequences]
With a flick of the switch, I banish the darkness.
It’s four a.m. on a Monday—time to get some work done before the sun, or the kids, stir. In the bathroom, I twist both faucet handles at the sink and watch groggily for a few seconds as the water twirls merrily down the drain. Where does this water from come? An ancient aquifer nearby, as I recall. Can’t be rainwater, I say to myself as I splash water onto my face in an attempt to ward off a desire to go back to bed; we only get twelve inches of precipitation a year here, if we’re lucky. Which reminds me. Drying my face with a cotton towel, fresh from yesterday’s laundry, I make a mental note to buy rain barrels for our roof’s downspouts, adding it to a lengthy to-do list.
Leaving the bathroom, I wend my way into the kitchen, where I make an unsteady beeline for the coffeemaker. I didn’t touch a drop of the evil brew until I was thirty-one, giving in only after a move to our home at seven thousand feet and a subsequent snow storm that winter. I grew up in the desert and lived in Los Angeles for years, so snow was a difficult concept for me to grasp initially, requiring what has since become a comfort food—a warm cup of coffee. In any case, I am grateful that a steady and apparently endless supply of the evil roast is available to someone who lives far, far away from a coffee plantation. If there were a coffee god, my daily ritual would include an oblation of thanksgiving, perhaps in the form of a teaspoon of sugar.
Mug in hand, I drift into the living room and settle into a chair at the computer desk, waiting for the caffeine to work its magic. Although it’s not quite summer yet, the windows are cracked open enough to let dryland smells into the house. It’s a remarkable privilege to live here in this beautiful place, in what geographers call a high, cold desert. Prehistorically, there was only enough food, water, wood, and arable land to support small populations of people, most of who had to move frequently to find fresh resources or dodge a drought. It’s totally different today, of course—except for the same sparse amounts of local food, water, fuel, and arable land. Thankfully we have oil, without which I wouldn’t be able to live here. Perhaps another offering is in order, this time to the gods of petrochemicals, who we never, ever want to anger.
Two hours later, I shut down the computer, rise from the chair, stretch my stiff muscles, then stride purposefully toward the kitchen to start the breakfast marathon. I switch on a lot of lights, even though the dawn is brightening quickly outside. I stab our old radio to life and reel instantly at the news: terror threats, political gridlock, greed, avarice, unemployment, upcoming elections. After a few minutes, I stab the radio off, not wanting to scare the kids. I switch on the CD player instead, filling the kitchen with the reassuring strains of a Mozart concerto. Then I turn to the main event of the morning: the breakfast menu.
Like many of their friends, our twins will only eat from a short list of acceptable items, very few of which correspond with anyone else’s preferences, necessitating a kind of daily food ballet. For example, our daughter likes sausage, which we buy organically and locally, soaked in maple syrup from Vermont. She’ll eat English muffins too. But our son won’t touch either one. He prefers industrially produced corn dogs, which no one else will eat (for various reasons). However, he likes Mexican meals, so burritos are popular in our house—except with our daughter. Gen prefers granola with yoghurt, or polenta, or Irish oatmeal, none of which the kids will touch.
I like eggs, which we procure from our small flock of chickens in the backyard. Gen loves them too, but the kids told us the other day that they are tired of eggs. Our daughter still likes homemade waffles, though our son is tired of them as well. He’ll eat fried potatoes, but she won’t. She likes cereal, but he doesn’t, of course. They are united, however, in their opposition to anything green at suppertime, which we force them to eat anyway. We do agree on organic milk, butter, hamburger, pasta, and rice, fortunately. Otherwise, we might starve.
We won’t starve, of course. That’s because our food system is a miracle, I think to myself as I pull a package of frozen sausage from the freezer and place it in the microwave oven for defrosting. We can eat what we want—or refuse what we want—from wherever we want, at any time we want. Peaches in February? No problem. Shrimp in a high, cold desert? No sweat. Coffee from an obscure island in the South Pacific, chocolate from Europe, lettuce from California, plasticware from China, honey from Albuquerque, canned green beans from God knows where? No problem. Even the microwave is a miracle. Look: the sausage is defrosted in a minute, ready for frying. I pull out a nonstick pan—another miracle—and place it on the stove. Hash browns, eggs, English muffins, marmalade, corn dogs, sliced cheese and meat for lunches, and sandwich bread quickly follow. It makes for a heap of food on the kitchen table, suggesting that a prayer to the food gods is probably in order as well.
After a final round of good-bye kisses, the family pulls out, and I retreat to the kitchen to put things away. Later, after some bill paying, a walk with the dogs, and a shower, I settle down with a stack of maps and guidebooks to Europe. Gen and I turn fifty this fall, and we’ve decided to treat ourselves and the kids to a whirlwind tour of Rome, Venice, and Paris, with lots of Roman ruins and medieval castles in between. Ever since Gen and I visited Venice, it’s been a dream of mine to celebrate my birthday alongside the Rialto Bridge, which I’m determined to fulfill. Why not? Other than the expense, it’s easy to get to Europe, and once you’re there, it’s easy to get around. My plan is to use it all: planes, trains, buses, taxis, boats, and a rental car. Everything is in the guidebooks—where to go, what to eat, where to sleep.
Besides, it’ll be a history lesson for the kids. Us too—a firsthand look at Western civilization, including centuries of wars, hardships, political upheavals, religious rifts, technological breakthroughs, economic strife, and social progress . . . all so we can watch cable TV, surf the Internet, goof off with video games, and get diabetes and cancer.
I put the map and guidebooks away, pack my travel bag quickly, check on the chickens, and head out the door. I jump into the truck and head into town, where I need to put in time at the day job and run a few errands before catching my flight. I settle down to work, which means I must stare, once more, deep into a computer screen.
Perhaps because I grew up in an archaic age, I stubbornly resist being sucked into the virtual 24/7 world that has consumed so much of our society. I’m still an eight-to-five guy, which means I don’t do much email on the weekends and I don’t do social media at all (no Twitter or Facebook accounts for me). My cell phone is just a phone. It doesn’t entertain me, check the stock market, or cook supper. I haven’t even programmed it with the phone numbers of friends and family. I’m required to memorize their numbers. That’s all right. I’m trying to inhabit as much of the 3-D universe as possible, fearful that our expanding obsession with the 2-D world is setting us up for a major fall. But that’s another topic for another day.
At noon, I shut down everything, pack up, say some quick good-byes, and jump back into the truck. I need to run a few errands in town, starting with a pit stop at the bank to cash a check. My next stop is a natural foods grocery store. I need snacks for the trip. Cruising briskly down the aisles, I realize the store is another mundane miracle of our modern era. It is packed to its organic gills with every conceivable type of food, all in impressive abundance. The cornucopia includes fresh French bread, humanely raised chicken, a dozen varieties of olive oil, wild salmon from Alaska, goat cheese from Switzerland, yoga magazines, wine galore, buffalo burgers, and an entire aisle dedicated to chips, salsas, and other snack foods. Today, I grab two apples, some organic dried apricots, a premade pesto-and-turkey sandwich, a bag of potato chips, and a cup of coffee to go. I’m in and out in under ten minutes.
That’s a miracle too.
Soon, I’m on the interstate, heading south. My mind drifts. The cornucopia in the natural foods store recalls a quote from the poet Ogden Nash that I read years ago. “Progress was good for a while,” I think he said, “but then it went on and on.”
Approaching the airport in Albuquerque, I sidle off the freeway and shake my head clear of road thoughts. It’s time to concentrate. Airports are miracles too, though increasingly stressful ones. The flight is uneventful, and I arrive at my destination a few minutes early. Deplaning, I pick up my suitcase at a carousel, secure my rental car from a generic company (I can only tell them apart by their colors), and hit the road—all in under thirty minutes. That’s amazing too, but it’s all so familiar and routine to me by now that I don’t pause to consider it.
I consult a map before driving to my hotel, which is conveniently located between the highway off-ramp and a large shopping mall. After checking in and depositing my belongings in the room, I drive over to the mall to explore supper options. The mall itself is ringed by chain restaurants, giving the impression that I’m entering an orbit around a giant, many-mooned planet. It certainly feels like a universe unto itself. Slipping beneath the outer ring of restaurants, I opt for a local sports-themed place on the planet’s surface instead.
After a successful landing, I walk inside the restaurant, where I am immediately assaulted by a dozen very large television screens, each blaring a different sporting event. As I wait for a table, I scan the mammoth room, noting that every available space on the walls is occupied by something neon, mostly beer advertisements. I feel like I’ve walked into a holy place—the Temple of Brew. Observing my awed expression, one of the temple’s acolytes approaches and guides me to a booth, where I plop down and dutifully order a beer from a very long list. I have no idea what I’m getting. I don’t drink much, but I don’t want to offend the beer gods either.
It’s a lovely evening. But the beer has made me droopy, so after three figure eights around the lot, I climb into the rental, drive back to the hotel, go to my room, grab a book from my bag, and slip into bed. There’s no reason to turn on the TV, not even curiosity. No need to catch up on pop culture tonight. Besides, it’s been a long, amazing day. It’s a remarkable world, I think to myself as the god of drowsiness begins to work its magic.
Progress is good . . . was good . . . still is. I know it went on too long probably, but that’s all right for the time being. Things are good—but for how much longer? The book slips in my hands. Despite our troubles, I feel fortunate to be alive today, now, here. I should give thanks to somebody, I think groggily. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, perhaps, or my parents. Perhaps an offering to another god is in order—maybe the god of rental cars. Or central heating. Or fluffy pillows. The book slips again. I put it down.
I reach for the light and, with a twist of a button, darkness engulfs me once more.
Age of Consequences: http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-61902-454-0
Courtney’s web site: http://www.awestthatworks.com