In the Future We Will Drive Teslas

It’s such low-hanging fruit to pick on the Americans for coming late to the renewable energy party. In 2013, 68% of the total electricity in Europe came from wind and solar energy. In Iowa, by contrast, 20% of the state’s total electricity was powered by wind.

And it’s easy to see why we are tardy. Until this point, climate change and renewable energy in the U.S. has been a drag; unsexy; a money problem. The movement’s poster child, a homeless polar bear adrift on a shelf of arctic ice, was not compelling. It was just damn depressing. Charismatic megafauna failed to sell the idea that climate change needs all-in focus from people to reverse the scientific findings that future shock is dying oceans, extreme weather, desertification, acidification, ad nauseum.

Not to mention it’s a really tough sell. To ask people to connect between polar bears on the melting Arctic to fluorescent light bulbs is a stretch; maybe even a tougher sell than the Thighmaster.

In a larger sense cause and effect in the climate change dialogue has been maddeningly hard to follow. Moreover, linking climate change to renewables has been difficult to float in everyday terms because it requires a kind of telescopic thinking, and taking a long view.

Bright scientists have communicated the urgency of our changing climate conditions for decades now, and while they have made some impressive progress in proposing solutions, the counter arguments prove unfortunate distractions: “Renewable infrastructure will cost trillions; the burden of this expense will fall on the already beleaguered working class.” “Wind turbines will kill too many birds.” “A new gas tax? No way no how!”

On top of all this white noise, the climate change movement itself also suffers from a negative space where a leader should be. Al Gore had all the right stuff, but somehow not the right chemistry or timing.

This mishigas that has flummoxed the community for too long is about to change. Enter a Stanford civil engineering luminary who can get down to brass tacks. 49 year-old Mark Jacobson published A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet With Renewables in Scientific American in 2009. Jacobson drives a Tesla around the Bay Area with the license plate “GHG Free.”

Last May, Jacobson gave a keynote address to a public hall filled with climate change activists: Some who work on divesting university campuses (Finger snaps on both hands go  to San Francisco State University and Stanford for their divestment!) and hedge funds of coal investments; Lobbyists who navigate the California Environmental Quality Act exemptions, and float bills against fracking in California; Journalists who cover the climate change beat via podcasts and print.

Jacobson spoke to this excitable crowd about his roadmap for moving to 100% renewables by the year 2050, which he calls “The Solutions Project.” Mark Jacobson teamed up with Mark Ruffalo, Marco Krapels and Josh Fox to combine science, business with culture to accelerate the transition. The Solutions Project works with clean energy business leaders, policy experts, NGOs, and other organizations to remove the barriers facing the future of renewables.

The vision in this project is already technically feasible today, says Jacobson, though we “quibble” about cost. While in Denmark, 35% of its electricity is produced via wind and surplus energy production goes to heating cities, we can solve surplus distribution issues in the same manner. “It’s just an optimization problem,” adds Jacobson.

Wind energy is inarguably cost competitive, which is great riposte for anyone who might bemoan the trillions. No matter how you manipulate the data, wind energy is always going to be cheaper than natural gas.

For example, “Great Plains” wind is 2cents/kWh. In no small part, this is thanks to T. Boone Pickens who spearheaded investment in turbine infrastructure and refers to the Plains as the North America “wind corridor.” The beleaguered Plains town of Sweetwater was turned around when wind power brought jobs to local residents, and royalty payments to landowners who leased sites for turbines.

Figuratively, harnessing the wind is just the thing for renewables to inflate from a secondary, even tertiary concern to a top item in our national consciousness. Such a burst of tailwind was provided by the well-timed release of the National Climate Assessment in early May. A force majeure of a summary, the assessment presents important findings from a team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee produced the report, which was extensively reviewed by the public and experts, including federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.

This report pulls no punches, and with the exception of Fox News, which gave it about 12 minutes, the issues have already gotten more airtime internationally. This frees up Jacobson from explaining the remedial facts. And he can get on with parsing the data to support the findings that natural gas is not a solution. And get on with carrying the message that we can make 100% renewables happen by 2050 by which time the entire fleet of US vehicles will be electric, (with the likely exclusion of the airline industry, and maybe they’ll have to go with batteries because jet fuel, baby, will be a thing of the past.)

Am I A Hamburger?

“There are only 40 people in the world, and five of them are hamburgers.” — Captain Beefheart

As I scan back through the span of days that mysterious forces have granted me the luck to have, I find proof that although I am cooked a little rare, I may be a hamburger. When I allow myself the question “how am I not like everybody else?” I submit that it’s getting really hard to feel unique. And here’s why:

1. There is a lot in a name. Or not. I started life as a “Jennifer,” since my hapless parents grabbed that out of the zeitgeist in Oberlin spring of 1967. Was fast-tracked into statistical anonymity in the 1970s when my name became the most overused in the country. In the 1980s, I had the great fortune of being in high school when the Tommy Tutone song “867-5309” played incessantly on top 40, a song that refuses to die to this day, and which was chanted mockingly at me just yesterday by a full grown man. Some of our demographic bulge turned themselves into “Jennas,” others “Jen.” To be addressed as “Jennifer” reminded me of my grandparents. So I picked “Jennie” with the “ie” since I found that “Jenny” is defined in many dictionaries as a “female pack mule.” Why it never occurred to me to bail myself out by using my middle name “Zarr” instead, I do not know. Who could be called a hamburger with a name like that? You can’t rush for a sorority with a name like Zarr, but you can certainly be an art student or a bass player in a math rock band.

2. Hetero-normative. After a haphazard turn with bisexuality, I settled into a codified gender role with a husband, and built my life around monogamy, despite full knowledge of Simone de Beauvoir’s caveat that marriage “almost always destroys woman.” It is my belief there is very little that is “normal” about the marriage relationship, which makes me an outlier of the hetero world, at least philosophically; But not enough of an outlier to act. As the literature of adultery reminds us, it is all too common to have a humdrum marriage. It takes a unique couple and a surplus of imagination to keep the love alive.

3. Tattoos: Two. Ear piercings: Five. No further comment necessary.

4. Garden Variety Drunk: As a problem drinker, I was what is called in the recovery world as “garden variety.” Once when I talked about giving up on demon alcohol, a friend said he really wished I wouldn’t because he would miss the “funny things” I said. In a blackout most of the time, I can’t confirm, but I do know from the aftermath that I was also unpredictable and destructive.  On a mild night, I was that inebriated dancer prone to making casualties of houseplants and other people’s cats. On bad nights, I smashed things: A mirror, for no apparent reason, my face into concrete, and eventually, a car into a cement wall. From smashing the glass, I’m very sure I got the attenuated seven years of bad luck, non-sequentially maybe. Whatever. The fun had to stop.

5. You Look Like Someone I Know: Years and years ago, a boy I was hanging out with introduced me to a friend who felt sure I looked like someone she knew. Not meaning to be unkind, this boy said, “Yeah, she looks like a lot of people.” I call to mind the relative or the friend. And everything clenches when I hear the words, “You know whom you look like?” Oftentimes it’s Patty Duke. I will grant you, the gays think Patty Duke is fab for her over-the-top bombast as Neely O’Hara in “Valley of the Dolls.” Plus, she came out as having bipolar disorder, and that takes gonads; the stigma of clinical and chronic unhappiness can cost both job and reputation.

So, those are five things about me that tend toward run-of-the-mill. What I hold close as unique is the struggle I have with existential loneliness. I imagine it’s brought about by carrying the albatross of my father’s suicide when I was a freshman in high school.

As friends get older, the more people I know who have a suicide in their lives. And in a larger, more rankling context: In the last 45 years, suicide rates have increased by 60% worldwide, and is now among the three leading causes of death among those aged 15-44 (male and female).

The untangled knot of suicide is never a topic for everyday discussion: (“Nice weather today.” “I know it’s sunny, but I still feel a bit like brewing up some hemlock tea.”) No, it typically festers underground in the recesses of our psyches where pain is hidden. But when an icon goes out this way, the dilemma gets pushed from the down low of our private lives and out into the spotlight.

Aaron Swartz’s death in January was one such instance. Author of the “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” and other screeds, Swartz represented Internet freedom and the hope that the juggernaut of a massive power structure was on the cusp of a shift toward recognition of humanity.

Swartz blogged about both big and banal ideas for most of his life (including an essay titled “How to Save the World, Part I.”) In one of his posts he wrote, “I feel my existence is an imposition on the planet…” Swartz, seeing how things work in the world, found them wanting, and—most problematic — saw his place in them to be an “imposition.” By hanging himself, Swartz cut the Gordian knot of his existence.

Cutting the knot is a non-starter for me. I aim to exist in the liminal center of that knot, hoping to find ease in the bondage; I want to hold conflicting ideas in my mind at once, that life sucks, while also a gift; This dialectic, I suspect, is what most people learn to handle before they are out of short pants. But for me, it’s a slower process.

So maybe I am not just a hamburger. My uniqueness is cast out of a will to outlast the very frigging long shadow of suicide. As I celebrate making it to 46, I am coming out of the dark woods of worrying that I won’t make it to 50 just because my dad didn’t. Happy birthday to me. I’m still here. A toast to my frailties and my strengths. And to my perseverance, because that does count.

“Enlightenment is not imagining figures of light but making the darkness conscious.” —Carl Gustav Jung

Twilight at Emigrant Gap

Bunsen Peak Trail is recommended in a bright yellow Sierra Club trail book borrowed from Montana friends. But can I trust a book from the shelves of a couple who enjoys ice climbing, and take 60 miles of a single track road to get into the Canadian back country for summer vacation?

I’m no wilderness badass. Humbled by the wide open space and, hell’s bells, the absence of a cell signal. Just who am I going to call if I get in some mess in Wyoming, anyway? A friend in the middle of a Pilates class or commuting? When I recognize that the separation from cell phone service scares me more than the grizzlies and wolves, I see my world is contracted to the  7 mile radius of my hometown.

Entering the West gate of Yellowstone I dully wonder why my eyes are making liquid. The skies are dark from the summer fires in Idaho. Must be the smoke. Maybe. Also, there’s this:  A provincial gal out on her own for the first time in too many years facing wild open space, especially on the  family and love front. Images of my kids paw at my mind, triggering grief. With this trip, I have allowed myself to hope and to trust, two things I run short on. The fires burning call to mind a disastrous burning of bridges. When relationships change, I go to that image.

Still, bigger than the instinct to avoid risk is the instinct to shrug off mental shackles.  I like to say I am bigger on the inside, but I have to prove it to myself again and again.

I pull off the road at the trailhead and notice a trio standing at their open car trunk. I approach and we circle up to reconnoitre the trail. “You don’t think we’ll need bear spray, eh?” asks the rail thin, tan Canadian lady with a long braid down her back. A bikini top and running shorts. The four of us determine the relative wildlife risk and length of a hike marked with very little signage, and determine we’ll head up together.

In Yellowstone, the park map points only to the highlights: Mammoth, Old Faithful, Lamar Valley. Perhaps it’s the shifting land, moving over the volcanic flow underneath, but the signs that are staked into the ground seem just a little off pointe. It’s as if they were made a hundred years ago, we joke. Posted during Teddy Roosevelt’s era of foresight, they really are about a hundred years old.

The little yellow book informs us that Bunsen is the German who invented the burner for measuring volcanic geysers. Here is something I would never have learned if I hadn’t left the house.  The book also tell us there used to be a forty foot communications tower at the very top of the peak, but it was disabled by high winds a few years ago and then dismantled.

So it is just me and the Canadians. A few yards up the trail, a small group quietly speaking Mandarin asks if they can join us, but they bail after we spot a small black bear about 60 feet away. The bear expertly ignores us, and rubs his snout into a hole at the base of a tree for a few minutes. Like nearly every single Yellowstone visitor, we stop and ogle, take photos, pass the binoculars, casually say “hey, bear,” so as not to incite any nearby mama bears. He wanders off, and we head up the trail.

I am surprised at how I describe myself to my new friends. Rather than skirting the topics or gilding the lily as I do at home, I am forthright about the state of my affairs. As usual with foreigners, though, I play sheepish about the fact that I speak only English.

The two older Canadians are sisters and the 16 year old is Marie’s niece, Cathy’s daughter. Cathy is the mother of five, married (“I won’t say I don’t love him, because I do. Though I wonder,” she says, “At my age. Does it really matter?”). The other sister has led a vagabond life sailing the world with her husband and three kids. She and her husband have recently decided to go their separate ways. Sounds eminently reasonable to me.  Anik is a reader and a creative writer. We talk about books until we are too winded.  The 16-year-old Mountain Goat scrambles up and down the trail with ridiculous endurance.

Once at the top, we wander around the peak. The wind, pushing us back from the cliff edge vista of Mammoth Valley seems to bring on an adrenalin rush and euphoria. We settle on rocks smoothed by the wind, blackened by either volcanic activity or fire, and eat some lunch. On the tail end of a two week back country trip, the ladies feast on a blend of instant mashed potato and tuna.

The way back down is tougher. When our search for Osprey Falls ends at a sheer drop, and the sisters start debating if the climb down is worth it, I blanch. Red face goes white as vertigo sets in. “The river is flowing west, so the falls has to be that way,” Anik says waving her hand past my face. Why is she not clinging to a branch or a rock, like I am? Surely this is where we’ll have to part ways because it’s improbable that I will climb down that cliff to look for a waterfall, having just seen ten falls on a hike near Hyalite Ridge. When they bag the quest for the Falls, it’s a huge relief.  We find the loop that will take us back down to the bottom.

I under-prepared. I have blisters. I am out out of water. Carrying a map insured that I didn’t totally hose myself. My new friends help me out with their extra bottles, joking that they only passed them along to me to lighten their load. We talk about a 6-month wilderness program Anik went on, Marie’s sailing travels, what it’s like to give birth in La Paz Mexico. After a long soak in the Boiling River, it’s nearly dark. Marie gives me some tea in a paper cup, we exchange email addresses, hug goodbye.

I can’t check Google Maps for directions to the place where I’ll be bedding down,  and it’s fine. Moving through this part of the world that still feels expansive and feral, I am in it. I belong.  On the drive back down through Roosevelt’s gate on the East side, the attenuating light of Emigrant Gap ripples on and on in waves in front of me.

Because I forget times when I best my doubts, this is a note to my future self. A reminder that my body knows how to push on into the twilight alone. My mind will have no choice, but to stop clinging and go along.

Be In That Sing-a-long

I admit I was taken by surprise. Honestly, I was hoping that my self confidence would magically rocket into the stratosphere. I was harboring the fantasy that my flaws would fade into the background, as I gave myself over to being entirely present onstage, baring nearly all of what nature gave me.

What I did not anticipate was that the narcissistic teenager in me would rise up from her corner where I tried to banish her years ago, and become so loud and, quite frankly, obnoxious. She wants to be vindicated, and whose inner teenager doesn’t want vindication? I nurture the idea that which is in need of correction can be brought back to an equilibrium.  This explains a lot of my latest obsession: burlesque.

The seeker wants satisfaction. Those of us who have bounced from hobby to hobby to hobby know the longing behind the bounce. Last year I was throwing myself furiously at skeins of yarn and knitting needles. Now I pour my energy into a subterranean world where hours and hours of fabrication, self assessment, and rehearsing are winnowed down to a precious few minutes on a nightclub stage. It gives new meaning to the phrase “get your act together,” as comrades in the dressing room spur you on to  “pop a pastie!”

I never quite got my act together as much as I would like. When I see the greats Catherine Delish or Girl Friday perform, I know I would need to find a spare 10,000 hours to put into burlesque if I ever hoped to consider myself a peer.   Still, if it was  all vanity-crushing and bruised ego, I would have passed my corset collection and rhinestoned peek toe pumps months ago. Each act gets a little bit better on certain fronts. And it’s the camaraderie that keeps me going.

When a burly girl friend told me that I had finally managed to hide my stage fright, and that I was “in command” the last time she saw me perform, this was progress. The first time I danced so fast, it called to mind a Buster Keaton silent film.  To dismiss this massive improvement would be to pick blackberries in the hard-to-reach bushes, make a glorious pie, and then let it sit molding on top of the fridge without sharing a slice with anyone.

I am embarrassed by sucking onstage, but I will go there. And if you feel yourself invisible, I believe it’s noble to try to banish those feelings. Do not go gently into that good night. Pushing my way into burlesque, in spite of huge discomfort, was a way of being courageous.  I would so much rather respect and face my fears, than go to the grave with all of them still vanquished and quivering.

My mother told me when I was young, as did so many other well-meaners, that there will always be someone who is prettier, smarter, and more sparkly. And of course this is true. It was certainly true when I found myself living in Southern California where the moderately attractive feel they should consider having some work done. But even before then, I had already learned the lesson a few months earlier when my best friend blossomed, overnight it seemed, into a stupidly beautiful woman.

This girl looked like a Botticelli painting. Plus, she had a bohemian flair, as if she was the mythical “Sarah” of Bob Dylan’s most lovelorn ballads. She seemed to turn the crank for every archetype anybody fancied; thick and long, curly dark red hair, enormous green eyes, and this crazy luminescent café con leche skin. Her only flaw, if any, was that she was flat-chested. This turned out only to be temporary, as if the gods realized the one blemish in their otherwise perfect creation, and made a quick Photoshop fix.

In short, my best pal left my late-blooming ass in the dust. It was one of my early memories of being invisible to men. It was one of the first, but not the last times this happened, as boys and girls fell all over themselves, asking her to model for them, to travel to Hong Kong to busk in the subways with them, to join their bands.  We lost touch when she moved to LA where she started dating Lenny Kravitz.

Meanwhile, these events seemed to slam me like wake waves after my father’s sudden death. As my best friend went off to see the world and begin choosing which of the many open doors to walk through, I was spooked by what had just happened in my own. Instead of rushing to the world, I waited for it to come to me.

And I developed a serpentine logic about personality and looks that defies common reason. I formed an intractable idea that the world treats the beautiful people better than I have been treated. I noticed doors open faster for the gorgeous. I saw men become more charming and generous when the lovely girls came into the room. I’m hardly the first to notice.

One study showed that an American worker who was among the bottom one seventh in looks, as assessed by randomly chosen observers, earned 10 to 15% less per year than a similar workers whose looks were assessed in the top one-third–a life time difference, in a typical case, of about $230k. Daniel Hamermesh, professor of economics at the University of Texas, has written a current book on the subject Beauty Pays. So, I came to understand that careers can be made on a stunning face. No news flash there. Most frustrating of all though, was that I felt I couldn’t command the male attention I craved.

These dark feelings have only a small place in the theatre of burlesque. The point of this art form is that the audience is eager, even lusting, to participate in the illusion that you are the most beautiful creature in the room until the song is over.

If I lambast or criticize myself without absorbing any of the positive comments I might get, I’m squelching the learning process. It’s a habit to push myself back into the corner where the wallflowers hide but a habit I want to break.  It’ll be a lot easier to  have a dynamic stage presence if I am less constipated by my flaws.

Burlesquers know that the secret sauce is vitality. False eyelashes, body glitter and smokin’ hot costumes augment the raw material we have to work with. A classic beauty in a sexy costume is a feast for the eyes, but an offbeat beauty who can dance, with a knack for original theatrics and comic timing? That’s something to talk about.

This look under the chassis is crucial since I have a little girl, who now a 6 year old. I want her to see me grapple with my fears and come up the tattered victor, so that she when her time comes, she will believe that, of course it can be done.  It girds my loins to hear her singing songs like this:

“Stand in the light/You can be up here/That’s alright, ‘tight/ I want to be that sing-a-long/No one bes the best/Just wanna dance around in my pajamas/We want to be it all!”

I want to be a liberating influence on my girl.  And I have been, at least on her songwriting. True, she may one day rebel, and claim she hates all things thespian. That’s OK because the point is that she feels welcome to express a human longing. We all want to  “stand in the light.” She can want to be it all without needing to be the best.