Sunday, July 8, 2012

Obituary



It's been a bit of a tough week. I wanted to write about the book I'm reading at the moment which is called Navigating the Coming Chaos: a Handbook for Inner Transition and is written by peak oil writer Carolyn Baker. There's been a bit of talk about synchronicity recently on other peak oil sites and for me this was mine because, like others, I am feeling a particularly strong level of fear lapping around my knees. It's a kind of fear of a greater fear, if you like, that only a Cassandra could feel. The best quote I saw this week that could approximate the cause of this came from Noam Chomsky … here it is:

The general population doesn't know what is happening, and it doesn't even know that it doesn't know.”

So I felt fortunate indeed when I opened Carolyn Baker's book and began to read. In it she posits that humankind is about to have a near-death experience. There's nothing we can do about this, it's as if we are walking in front of a bus, oblivious because we are listening to our iPods. We have no comprehension of the three e's: energy, environment and economics, and the interplay between them that has led us into our dazed predicament. We are not prepared for it, either materially, mentally or spiritually. It's as if we are going to be forced to march into a battle wearing our bathing costumes rather than body armour. The only thing that can come from this is disaster on a scale that is scarcely imaginable to the modern mind and we can expect to see mass social breakdown and suicides as the myth of our exceptionalism disappears in a puff of smoke.

Anyway, that's the bad news. The good news, if you could call it that, comes in the form of inner transition, and that's what she talks about in the book. She talks about becoming a new kind of human being, and one that can live with a continuous conscious connection with the living universe. And cultivating your own inner bunker. There is plenty of Jungianism in it and I just know that it is going to be one of those books that opens up new paths for me.

But I haven't finished the book yet, so I'll wait until I do so before offering up more.

The second thing I thought I might right about was a follow on from last week's post about George Monbiot. Having accused him last week of not really understanding peak oil it was only 48 hours later that he published a hot button article claiming that peak oil was irrelevant. Could it be that GM reads my humble blog? Ha, I doubt it, but still he put the cat among the pigeons and there was plenty of roiling debate about whether he has a point or not. The unofficial consensus seems to say that he had a couple of good points (namely that peak oil won't stop us being fried by burning fossil fuels – something we knew anyway) but that overall he was still wrong, primarily because he was basing his arguments on dubious data supplied by cornucopians.

John Michael Greer commented to the effect that climate change activists such as George Monbiot are labouring under delusions of grandeur because they see mankind as omnipotent whereas peakers recognise the limits of our power and are therefore somehow more realistic. There might be something in this but I for one am growing a bit tired of this dualism – it's like a football match with the environmentalists (in the green shirts) on the one side and the peakers on the other (in the black shirts) with the Earth as the ball. I became an environmentalist as a teenager because my local forest was cut down to make way for a new housing estate, and because I couldn't stand seeing whales being harpooned or seals being clubbed to death: does that sound delusional?

The third thing I thought I might talk about is how fast things are unravelling. I read an article yesterday about numerous cities in the US going bankrupt and how feedback loops effectively bring about fast collapse scenarios far more rapidly than it took to build up the city in the first place. It goes something like this: city gets into financial difficulty because it has borrowed too much based on the value of its assets (i.e. real estate in most cases); city suddenly finds it can't pay the debt due to sinking asset prices and a stalling local economy; city cuts back on essential services and cuts pensions and welfare payments; crime sky-rockets as a result but there is not enough money to pay the police so certain areas (usually the poorer ones) become unpoliced; which causes even more crime which in turn further lowers house prices which in turn further makes the gap between asset values and debt wider. People are trapped because they can't sell up and move somewhere else. The tax base falls and another step towards third world status is complete.

What I'm interested to know is what the limiting factors of these negative feedback loops might be. I can imagine vigilante citizens patrolling the streets perhaps, and maybe local food coops and trading arrangements springing up. Whether people are ready for this kind of sudden shift in lifestyles is the 64 million dollar question.

I was going to write about all of these things but this week's blog post is overshadowed by the death of my father in England. Now before anyone thinks that I'm sobbing into my keyboard I'd better point out that my father and I had a somewhat strained relationship and I have barely seen him for the last 18 years. The last seven years he has been slowly degenerating into a second infancy as dementia ate away at his brain, and the last year has been particularly bad for him. It was, as they say, a merciful release.

I'll try not to make this into a pity party but I would just like to say that there won't be many people attending his funeral. In life he seemed to think that people were eggs, because one of his favourite sayings was 'You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.' He broke quite a few eggs during his life and prided himself on being feared by his employees when he was a company director of GEC. He used to stroll around the train factory where he worked summarily firing workers for things such as wearing earrings. He boasted about workers dying from asbestosis and prided himself in never having read a book in his life.

Born in Cheadle in 1932, Jack grew up, as he said, as a dirty-kneed urchin in a solidly working class household. As a teenager it seemed he was destined to be a footballer and played for Manchester City in their junior team. Furthermore he built up his strength lifting scrap metal round the back of the factory he worked in, becoming an anatomist's model in the process. He must have got bored with this because he met my mother, got married at 21 and hopped on next trans-oceanic liner to America. Stepping off onto American soil, the first thing he did was to come down with acute appendicitis. He was rushed to hospital only to be left in the corridor for hours while my mother, only 19 and in a state of frenzy, rushed to find a good Samaritan who would pay a bond for my father to have the operation. If she hadn't found one such man I wouldn't be writing these words.

They spend the next 16 or so years living on and off in Canada. My father, a member of the Communist Party, was finding life in the US too difficult (so he said). Canada took him in and he made the swift conversion from Communism to Capitalism, once he had made enough dough as a property owner there.

Back in England I arrived in 1971 (my sister is ten years older than me and grew up with a Canadian accent) and my father climbed the greasy pole of a manufacturing industry in terminal decline, working his way up as others slid down. As a ruthless cost cutter who was not afraid of making omelettes he had found his niche and was rewarded correspondingly. Thatcherism was on the rise and my father was one of her acolytes. If anything, she was too soft for his liking, and he advocated paying lower taxes and instituting the death penalty for petty offences such as smoking dope. I was packed off to private school and the intention was to turn me into a mini prodigy which, of course, I never became.

The scene was set for one conflict after another and, despite my caving in to his insistence that I study economics at university (I was all set to study classics) he never really saw me as much more than an expensive failure. A few attempts at reconciliation proved fruitless and in the years after my mother died (some 20 years ago) he devoted himself obsessively to researching ways to avoid paying tax; something which, in the end, I think contributed to his decline.

Still, it doesn't do to speak ill of the recently dead, so I'm going to present another side of my father as well because he had sides that not many people realised. He was great nature lover and he took us on walks most weekends around some of the most beautiful parts of the English countryside. If it wasn't for this early exposure to nature, where I was allowed to play to my heart's content, I'm not sure how I would have grown up.

Furthermore, he abhorred waste of any kind. Every scrap of food had to be eaten, no matter how bad it tasted, and he would state again and again that we are spoiled in the west and that people were starving in other countries. He saw military expenditure as morally wrong too, saying that for every minute an F1-11 was in the air it could stop a child dying from malnutrition. Lights left on in the house were punishable with having my pocket money docked (from the 10p it stood at!) and nearly all technology, which in those days meant colour televisions and VCRs was profligacy that would turn your brain to mush.

”People,” he would say to me time and again ”are really quite stupid and will do anything and buy anything you tell them to. The trick in life is to do what you think is right and not be bothered by what others think of you.” I didn't agree with him at the time (I just wished my father would be like everyone else's!) - but I now realise that this was one of the lessons I really took to heart. While all my friends were going on holiday each year to Florida and on cruises, we stayed in a leaky caravan in a field in Cornwall, where it normally rained continuously.

His toughness extended to central heating, which he was almost ideologically opposed to. Every winter he would construct his own storm windows and generally weatherise the house. One room (the lounge) was kept warm, while the rest of the place was as cold as the crypt. Sleeping with a thick jumper on was the norm and it was unusual if you couldn't see your breath indoors between December and March.

Again, this is something I now thank him for. I am able to weather a far greater range of temperatures than most people I know, although it does mean that I suffer in offices when the thermostat is set way too high.

Similarly, my father taught me a lot about tools and gardening. Almost everything was 'home made' in our house, from the car which he had salvaged from a scrap heap and put together one cold winter (with me standing there handing him tools for many a long Saturday when I'd rather be out with my friends), to the beer which he drank rather too much of at weekends and many of the clothes I wore. Some of our food came from the garden too, and every autumn he would take us out into the 'wild' (i.e. on National Trust land) to pick masses of elderberries, which he would make into wine with his own printed labels 'Château Heppenstall'. Unless it was work related he never went in restaurants, flew on planes or bought furniture.

In his later years, hit by the grief of losing my mother at the relatively young age of 58, he softened a lot in his stance on things. With old age he partially gave in to the insistence of everyone who kept saying he should 'enjoy his money' and splashed out on a few of the consumer items that most other people take for granted. He tried to reconcile with me but couldn't help but get caught up again in his emotions, with the result that I stayed away from him whenever possible.

When I analyse the core cause of the conflict between us I think it can be boiled down to our world views. I have an innate sense of what I call optimistic pessimism – all I can remember feeling since I was very young was that we were destroying the world and that by the time I was an adult much of it would have been wrecked. My father, like everyone else of his time who had lived through the Second World War, was the opposite and took the view that scientific progress was marvellous and cost-free. Everything from giant dams, to nuclear power stations and our town's first McDonald's restaurant was 'marvellous' and he claimed his only wish was to be young again so that he could see these fantastic developments take shape. This unacknowledged worship of progress was his true religion and was probably what drove a wedge between us.

In the end he spent the last year of his life at a string of nursing homes and hospitals. He was kicked out of the first one for 'inappropriate behaviour' and ended up under heavy sedation in hospital while doctors experimented on him with different cocktails of drugs. It's a sad way to end up and he died alone, with even the nurses at the nursing home (who only spoke Polish and could not even communicate with him) failing to notice he had died. My sister discovered him in his room on Tuesday evening, having come down with a cough that morning which had quickly overwhelmed his immune system. It occurs to me in writing this that I don't even possess a picture of him.

We are now arranging a funeral. As a devout atheist he had made it clear that he didn't want to be anywhere near a church, even in death. So we are arranging for a burial in a woodland setting, something I think he would have approved of. We're getting a humanist speaker to conduct a ceremony and I'm writing a eulogy, which will probably end up being a more saccharine version of what is above. I realise now deep down that I loved my dad, despite all of the conflict. I hope that when I die my children will possess a picture of me. How does that Neil Young song go … ?



Old man take a look at my life I'm a lot like you
I need someone to love me the whole day through
Ah, one look in my eyes and you can tell that's true.



11 comments:

  1. Blessings, Jason. Thank you for this post.

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  2. Its hard to post the usual condolences because your father wound up living a long time (after nearly dying at the age of 19), the decline of his last years was such that death was a good thing, and he seems to have had a number of serious and never resolved problems such as not liking other people at all. But appreciate that you are still a little more alone now in the world than you were before. Plus you will be unusually busy now in arranging for the transition and taking stock.

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  3. Hi Jason,

    I'm sorry to hear about your loss. Even more sorry to hear about the difficulty you had with your father. Man, that is a hard read.

    I don't know what to say. I think I can say this for sure: I am sure your father felt a fierce joy when you were born and he held you in his arms for the first time. Likewise, I am sure there were nights when he lay awake worried about you because you had a fever.

    You are a parent. You know how all this feels.

    Your father may have had his weak points: he may have been hypocritical, or mean, or not the man you wanted him to be. But, we all have weak points and blind spots and we're all hypocrites, that's for sure.

    Except for the odd few, for the most part, we are all doing our best. He was doing his best, I am sure. And who knows what he was reacting to. People don't exist in a void and everyone has a history and parents before them. I suppose you know the Philip Larkin poem on this subject.

    And, he is the only father you'll ever have. Now, that's past tense.

    We all want our parents to be more than regular people. But, parents are just people. And father/son relationships are inherently fraught. Sons judge their fathers so harshly. But, they're just ordinary men and being a parent is damn hard work, as you know.

    I hope you can cherish the good memories of the man.

    Keep on being a great person and an inspiration. There are more people supporting you than you know.

    Thank you.

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  4. Please accept my sympathy on the death of your father. Losing a parent is a defining (or more accurately, redefining) event in life, and is made harder I think when the relationship has not been an easy or close one. I am glad that you can recognize some of the positive gifts he gave you.

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  5. Thanks guys.

    At this time I'm trying to remember all the good things about him. It's true that sons can be harsh judges, but it's also true that fathers can project their hopes and fears onto their sons.

    I'll be away in England for the next week but will resurface again soon after.

    Jason

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  6. Wow. That was an incredibly moving essay even before the news about your father, which subsumed the issues you began with - what I call "pre-traumatic stress syndrome" about how fast things are unraveling. I hope you'll come back to them in time.

    Your description of your father is fascinating. He seems to have embodied enormous self-contradiction. As a survivor of a fragmented family, I thank you for pouring out your raw emotions and memories here. It elicits something universal for all of us to ponder - the conflicting feelings towards our own parents that are often intrinsic in the relationship. Think of Oedipus, Electra, Hamlet and Kafka's Metamorphosis! You know, all happy families are boringly the same...

    Wishing you peace in the coming days...and maybe you can find a picture.

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  7. Jason,

    My sympathies on losing your father. I can understand the mix of emotions, having lost a parent years ago.

    Now I'm a father of a daughter and a son and see how hard it is- to raise a son. Daughters adore their fathers- sons challenge them- and fathers challenge (but that may be too mild a word) their sons.

    It's good to see the good in him and be honest about what isn't. I hope that when the time comes for me to do the same, I can do it as well as you did.

    Jeff
    eighthacrefarm.blogspot.com

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  8. michele/montrealJuly 12, 2012 at 4:22 PM

    My father died 2 years ago (I am 63) and it was like nothing to me. I tried to have feelings considered "normal" but nothing came. He was just part of the problems we are in today: a human being with no consciousness whatsoever of what was going on on this planet and even if I tried, I do not have any feelings towards him.

    as for Chomsky's: ”The general population doesn't know what is happening, and it doesn't even know that it doesn't know.”
    here is my take: As a society/group of human beings, we are DRUNK on oil. There is no way we are going to wake up because we are on a drinking binge. And if the saying is true, "they" will no even suffer when dying because drunk people do not feel the pain. Neither the pain they are experiencing, nor the one they are inflicting.
    sidenote: last night I was at a summer picnic with a group where I am an activist and ALL I heard about was the plane trips that everybody was taking during the summer with the usual pride at travelling and the usual awe due to travellers. The sky is never blue here since 2009. Always covered in clouds formed by the exhaust of planes...

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    1. I quit flying years ago for a number of reasons, chief among which was the revelation (to me) of how much noxious crap (CO2, unburned fuel, particulate) each jet-powered aircraft was spewing into the upper atmosphere; there to hang for months, if not years.

      I still own and drive a car, albeit sparingly - but that too will be gone in the not-to-near future.

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  9. Hi Jason,

    I haven't commented on here for a while, but I've been following. You write well and I enjoy your angle on things.

    As for your Father...well I won't say anything much as there's nothing to be said that can change anything. I have a similar relationship with my living mother and my partner just lost her mum who she was close to. I guess as humans we all live in these short cycles of time between birth and death (my 3rd was born two weeks ago), and there just isn't much time to get used to things before they change! But nevertheless - respect for laying it out in your blog - those are tough things to say.

    It was interesting that you said:

    'all I can remember feeling since I was very young was that we were destroying the world and that by the time I was an adult much of it would have been wrecked'

    As I was just saying to my partner this evening that that was one of my earliest continuous convictions/understanding. You were also born in the same year as me and we both bought property abroad (you in Spain, me in the south of France- to try and live a better life, and subsequently couldn't make it work) - I've been meaning to ask you more about that as I see the similarities! I also wanted to ask you about something you posted on the ADR a while back: you said that you'd be leaving Denmark and coming back to the UK (with some certainty it seemed). What are you up to that brings you back over here? Sorry if I've missed that in another post - please just point me if so.

    Anyway, I hope the funeral goes off ok - you might be surprised at the emotions then. Whatever happens, see the lessons as they present themselves, and learn them.

    Regards, Matt

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  10. Thank you for your plain and honest words about your father. I appreciate your lack of sentimentality and taking stock in an even and fair way what must be conflicted or absent within you. We are all complex and often don't realize what we have until it is gone. But, things we don't want or need--especially those others think we should want or need--can be let go of.

    A therapist once reminded me that parents are just people after all. As an adult it's hard to shake our terrified child selves and realize that these people which lorded over us are not as all-powerful as they had us believe. Even in my early 40s, this is a shocking truth.

    Derek
    dex3703.wordpress.com

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I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.