Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Goodnight Empire? Lessons from (Hurricane) Irene

by Lisa Barr

I am a product of the mass media generation.  
So, I live my life with a constant song in my head.  
Earworms are us. 
Meditation could possibly help with this malady.  
Still my condition helps keep my spirits up. 
At least, that’s what the lyrics of a St Patrick’s Day stalwart did for me as Hurricane Irene bore down upon my Upstate New York farm:  

Good night Irene, 
Good night Irene,
I’ll see you in my dreams!

Would it be nightmare?  
Perish the latter thought I did as I hung 8 feet in the air (with my left hand) from the PVC supports to my pullets’ new home behind my own.  
My right hand lashed the 6 mil plastic sheeting over a tightly drawn tarp. 
I am a five foot tall middle-aged woman.  
I don’t look like Barbie.  
My hens were concerned.  Or comforted?  They grew quiet.  Watching.  Listening.
I had periodic help from a step ladder.
And a friend.
Outside, in the gathering dusk, he braved the cold, pelting rain with a power tool, sheetrock screws and lathe to pin down the awning.  He worked on a two foot slippery shelf of muddy grass before the 40 foot slope that gently descends to a less gentle, 25 foot slope above a creek/reservoir we’re trying to keep frack free.  It’s one source of drinking water for the town of Oneonta, NY.  
Some well-meaning fractivists are trying to deny my ability to farm my land--turn it into a ‘water preservation district’ (read: potential new park land after 30 years of over-regulation?) that could trump my agricultural zoning classification.  
As if this can stop fracking--regulating my one acre farm to the point that it can be seized and sold to the Town of Oneonta--or will it be the City?  Will this save their land?  I doubt it.  
Meanwhile the nearby City of Oneonta is trying to annex the entire area so that it can get tax dollars from the local mall--which is in the Town’s tax district. 
I don’t like either idea.  
I also don’t like that I’m being approached to fight both by  people I suspect want fracking, and one person I KNOW wants fracking--the local fuel oil magnate who is one of the largest gas/fuel oil companies in North America.  
I don't think their contacting me much matters.  Fracking will happen unless we end Big Dirty Energy's despotic grip on our energy and transportation policies, and to do that we would have to wrest the industry's money-grubbing hands from our politicians' vital parts.  
So I'll talk to the bad guys about the 'smart local kids' attempt to protect local water' and I'm going to come out against it.  I'm sick of pro-war environmentalists.  I'll try to introduce them to Derrick Jensen's take on their activities.  
Strange bedfellows seek alliance in the twilight of empire, it seems.  
Should I fight for my land? 
Is that what’s right?  
Will it matter anyway?  
Why do they use the term ‘merger’ instead of ‘annexation’?  
When did Upstate New York become Texas? 
Can’t think about that right now.  Got to keep working.  The chickens want to know how my effort will help them.  Will there be layer mash in the morning?  Scratch grain? Warm water?
As we work, the structure and its 36 trusting occupants (Rhode Island Reds, Australorps, Buff Orpingtons, and Gray and Black Americauna 5 month-lings become ever more peaceful.  
Periodic gusts grow from 25 -30 mph and then to 35-40 mph.   But there is increasingly less flapping of awning and hens.  Picture an 8 foot by 18 foot chicken-wire cage with a roof sloping from 9 feet to 6 feet for drainage purposes.  Below it are cast-off, extremely tall pallets from the local Sears mail order store.  Below those pallets, around the outside, is about 400 pounds of hand-laid (gallon jug by gallon jug) concrete-over-chicken-wire-to-keep-foxes/weasels/skunks-away foundation.
Picture the structure shaking with me hanging by it.
This is an analogy, both for our dying empire and those of us with just enough scratch left to try surviving it--a middle-aged woman flapping in the breeze with her hens.  
Color me green.  I am lady fucking liberty, flapping in the breeze.

“Sometimes I live in the country.
Sometimes I live in the town.
Sometimes I have a great notion
To jump in the river and drown.”
As I work, saving my agricultural investment, I recall where I was last year at this time.  I had returned to Liberty Plaza, Washington DC’s (first? second? simultaneous?) OCCUPY for older activists that began as Kevin Zeese/Vets for Peace/Code Pink’s STOP THE MACHINE/CREATE A NEW WORLD.  I had arrived, largely driven there by a friend the night before it all began.  I would videotape some of the events there--until a badly abused hard drive died in DC.  Hard drives don’t like to be bumped up and down suburban mass transit steps, turns out.
Citizen journalism means self-funded journalism.  Hard drives are expensive to replace.   I returned to DC within the month--for 10 dollars!--with the funded Tar Sands busses for a protest NOT joined by the OCCUPY folks.  Perhaps the ‘we don’t want to blame Obama’ apologies after the celebrity arrests earlier that summer had something to do with the experienced activsts’ absence?  Or the environmentalists themselves are queasy about being too close to to the anti-war movement?  
No matter.  I travel both worlds.  
So, I spent the night in a tent on Freedom Plaza, instead of with the kids.   I videotaped for a possible documentary I’m working on concerning the definition of violence (economic).  
But, I also was asking myself an important existential question:
Could I survive as a homeless woman if I lost my farm?  
I needed to know what that would be like.  And I felt safe spending the night with the Freedom Plaza campers.  With all those porta potties nearby.  All those Veterans for Peace.  In the glow of the White House (or so it seemed).  
Wells Fargo, having denied me wrongly for HAMP 
*(calling me ‘unemployed’ while I was still under 5 months’ more contract;
* saying they would accept unemployment payments as income and then saying ‘Ha!  Sorry!  That doesn’t COUNT!’, 
*cashing 2 checks instead of one and then saying ‘well, your check bounced’) 
and then
*Telling Senator Gillibrand’s office with a straight face-- “Well, she just keeps breaking arrangements.”  
They filed for foreclosure in September?  August?  It’s a blur.  One shitty waitressing job followed by my first pseudo-factory job.   (No, Michael Moore, I fled Michigan in the 70s not because I wanted to be Marlo Thomas--I wanted to survive and escape my lower middle class lifestyle--one step above poverty as it was).  
My current employer is replete with a supervisor who doesn’t like me talking about the filth, the lack of noise and dirt protections.  He (or perhaps the big boss?) perhaps surmises  I’m speaking with the union reps (2 out of 3 in the building, anyway).  I may not be able to keep this, my latest shitty job.  In fact, I may be fired this week.  I was told I was ‘walking around too much’ the other night and sent home early.  Hmmm.  I’ll get another shitty job. McDonald’s is hiring.  Not to worry.  
I tell myself several times a day that I can save my house in cram-down (the only one left in bankruptcy law) if I can turn my home (still zoned agricultural) back into a farm.  I’ve been working on it for 2 years.  I think the numbers, the dates are matching up--I tell myself this several times a day.
But the fear of being a journalist; turned journalism professor; turned activist journalism professor-fighting-to-get-her job-back; turned middle-aged-wage-laborer/farmer-trying-to-save-her-house keeps me awake, often.  
If you’re not gambling in the latter stages of American Empire, you’re not living.  Not since the HAMP bailout allowed the credit companies to dry up even credit card borrowing for small businesses. 

           “Quit rambling’ and quit gamblin’
            Quit stayin’ out late at night”

I work at night.  
Not by choice.  It's all I can find near my home in a rural, small college town--formerly a railroad town.
As a delivery person, you could say we serfs own the night.  Because everyone else is sleeping, wisely getting the necessary chemicals to repair the brain during the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m..  
If I stayed home late at night, now that the unemployment has run out (and the really obvious private detectives are gone) how could I drive to deliver newspapers for the local daily my students used to content-analyze for their senior projects?  How could I dodge--the deer?--the ditch when I drift off in exhaustion?  Find a restroom in what’s left of rural America in the wee hours when the caffeine overdose stimulates more than my brain?  Or, if there is no delivery job, how could I prove to my supervisors on the mailroom line that I’m not ‘walking around too much’ to remain in their employ?
Yes.  All that graduate work prepared me for the sleep deprivation needed to survive, I tell myself.  Never mind that the men evaluating or replacing me as an academic lack the advanced degrees I borrowed deeply to acquire.  
I have hens to save.  
Breathe with the wind.  
Tell the guy outside how much you appreciate his help as Irene bears down.

“Stay home with your wife and family.
Sit down by the fireside bright.”

I need a wife, I’m thinking.  If I’d had a wife, I might be tenured now. 
The house is a mess and I need to be done with this coop.  Will I ever again be dry and warm?    What if I’m fired from the job for which I just spent $600 buying: 
a new tire
ridiculously powerful new headlights for the ones the deer shattered
a really cool yellow removable strobe light 
for my damaged delivery vehicle (not even my own--my sister’s car!) 
Will these chickens support me by producing enough eggs?
I go to work.  My hens survive.  The older ones, in a different pen go back to laying.  
All is well in my little world.  
Not so in others--the online videos show massive shoreline devastation.  
“You cause me to weep, 
You cause me to mourn
You cause me to leave my home.”

Yes.  I blame big oil for this latest coastal devastation.  Not just for the climate change. Not just for the lack of directional drilling that could have saved the marshland below New Orleans (1 mile of swamp absorbs 1 foot of flood surge).  I blame dirty energy (coal, nuke, gas, oil) for policy changes that effect how we travel, how we light and heat our homes.   They presided and dictated the dismantling of our train system to instead expand our highway system (and hence our reliance upon the gasoline/fuel oil/natural and propane gas for energy AND transportation).  
This created a hell of a lot of greedy middle men and the women who live off and emulate their slimy tactics.  The EID Marcellus crowd is just the latest, most obvious, finally shameless incarnation of the rot brought to our government and social structures.  
Even before the mountaintop removal thugs, the fracking thugs, the industry’s greed all but halted solar power installation in the U.S..  It continues, but nowhere near the ‘space race‘ style conversion needed to save our economy and our democracy.  Germany used the Carter Administration economic plan for making solar transition profitable and possible.  
Back in the states, we have to fight to get every one of the crappy, poorly maintained, privately owned ‘utility’ companies to accept the solar power we generate from our home and business systems.  And that’s after we fight the local zoning board for the right to put up a solar panel (at least that’s the case in the Town of Oneonta, until recently).
Meanwhile, we see visions of a humbled Chris Christie walking with Obama, thanking him for the FEMA he used his NJ gubernatorial office to decry before Tropical Storm Irene knocked out all those homes (and voting ability?).  Maybe a possible pending defeat of the enemy--even while he’s helping you--makes it easier to be nice?
Put aside current politics for a minute.  All this sturm and drang, all this hailing or decrying of FEMA would be needless had our military spending been curbed after World War II.   We could be like the Netherlands.  They were on the right track at least when the 1953 “Watersnoodramp” (literally ‘flood disaster’) struck.  They protected their citizens.  They sped up a program to protect their shores.  
Meanwhile, the U.S. military establishment was ever expanding, well beyond the newly created standing army and ‘Pentagon’ plans announced (decreed?) to a war-weary nation.  David Swanson has a great article elsewhere about the big swindle that turned ‘growth’ to decay in most sectors, most notably our farms.
But I can't think about that.  
I have chickens to fool into production during the winter with a light on a timer.  Should I pipe in radio as well?  What station?  I can’t afford satellite.  

“But the very last words I heard her say
Was “Please sing me one more song.”

Maybe I’ll beat Wells Fargo.  Maybe I’ll again work as a journalism academic.  But I need to quit editing this, need to send it off for publication before I go to work stuffing advertisements into a newspaper that increasingly looks more like a Fingerhut mailing than its old self.  They are trying to hang on and I support that.  And right now, it’s supporting my chickens.  And me.  
Good night Irene.  
I need a new song.  
Something hopeful.  Before I became the wage-slave-I-am, I spent 20 hour days during a 90 day period this summer failing at a business I plan on succeeding with soon.    Then the unemployment ran out.  
I’d say wish me luck.
But, I don’t believe in luck.  I grew up in rural Michigan in the 60s.
At this point, I believe in money.
We need the assets of the dirty energy industry to quickly retool, rebuild, re-imagine our country.  We need someone who can use this moment to seize their ill-gotten loot (largely, egregiously untaxed for about 50 years anyway) and put it to work for us.
But lady liberty is flapping in the breeze.
And I have a shift to pull.
Revolution?  Maybe I’ll see it in my dreams.

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