Monthly Archives: September 2005


Zeke on the sidewalk in Richmond On our walk this morning, Zeke was doing so well that he actually trotted down a short steep hill behind our house. That was a mistake on his part. The footing was uneven, and over he went.

And he couldn’t get up.

His rear legs had given out on the rough terrain, and he fell over on his side. Those back legs were beneath him and pointing uphill, and he couldn’t gain the leverage to push himself back onto his back feet.

I watched him for ten or fifteen seconds to see if he’d figure it out. He didn’t.

So I went up and pushed on the downhill side of his hips, to give him something to push against. He got up, hopped over an eight-inch fence rail into the neighbors’ back yard.

The Anatomy of Bad News: as if things weren’t bad enough already

We have a little inside joke among the staff at the Earth Island Journal. As production ramps up for each issue, we must read, over and over, each article covering the surprisingly bad news in which the Journal specializes. Writers caught up in the enormity of their topics will tend to pile atrocity on outrage on disappointment, seemingly trying to raise the stakes with each paragraph. I am no exception. A couple years ago, after plowing through three or four such articles in the course of an afternoon, my co-worker Audrey and our then-intern Adam started chuckling, and then mocking me mercilessly. They were reading an article I’d written in a bit of a hurry, and came to the third time in 3,000 words in which I’d used the phrase “As if that wasn’t bad enough…”

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the phrase appeared two more times in the piece. By that last one, Audrey was laughing so hard she seemed to be having a little trouble breathing. Since then, we’ve written the phrase in the margins of many pieces we’re editing when we find an author ramping up the carnage seemingly endlessly.

The problem is, there are just so damn many opportunities to use the phrase. Try, for instance, writing a synopsis of the events during and after Hurricane Katrina’s rampage through the Gulf Coast without using that phrase, or its close equivalents. It’s hard work. By the time you get to FEMA cutting Jefferson Parish’s emergency phone lines, I guarantee you will have wanted to use the phrase at least four times.

This sort of cascade of bad news is inevitable in a society that is 1) part of a complex ecological system, 2) run for the most part without paying attention to how complex systems operate, but instead 3) run as if positive feedback were a sensible regulating mechanism, and 4) run in that fashion by idiots.

The more people inhabit the society, the worse the news will get. For one thing, even a small catastrophe — a minor earthquake, for instance — can wipe out thousands of people if they are crammed closely enough together. As human population grows, the divide between rich and poor grows along with it. (More people dividing finite resources and all that.) And as the number of people in the world grows, and the ease and immediacy of information movement increases, the bad news that we get seems multiplied. Where once we read of massacres or plagues in abstract 9-point Bodoni on newsprint, we now have full-motion video available to us in our shirt pockets.

As increasing strain is put on those complex systems that support us, an increasing number of those systems will go through abrupt changes. Unprecedented events are rapidly becoming the norm. Most of them will be unpleasant.

So we have more bad news affecting more people, and their responses to that bad news often causing worse news. And as if that weren’t, well, you know, we have word of that news getting to us faster and in more detail. How does one react to this bleak situation? What effect does this tsunami of bad news have on the human psyche?

Roughly speaking, there are two ways a person can react to the onslaught. While my temptation is to declare one or the other the “better” reaction — and it will be no secret which one I prefer — neither one is perfect. Both have their drawbacks. Both hold the potential for catastrophic positive feedback cascades. And both have their advantages as well. In fact, most of us — likely recognizing that no possible single response to today’s world can be entirely healthy — use a combination of the two approaches.

Those two possible reactions to a world of bad news? One is to build walls in an attempt to shield yourself from the bad news. The other is to knock down those walls, to embrace reality in an attempt to come to terms with it, and — with luck —  to effect some change where possible.

I’ll talk about the wall-building strategy first, in the next post in this series.

un poema

la vida es oscura, un sueño
hoy los pájaros te cantan memorias
el sabor efímero de zanahorias
y las hierbas dulces que quitan tu ceño.

en el fin grande del desempeño,
el pobre sol cansado rompe el mar;
vuelve la oscuridad para el día cortar.
estoy encima del Puerta de Oro
y el mar cubre la mitad del sol.

podemos tomar una de dos vistas
yo prefiero la optimista.

el mar será nuestro crisol
que fragua mi camino sin farol
alrededor del despeñadero.

por la mañana vuelve el farolero.

esta noche relajaremos juntos
tocaré suavemente tu pelo
a la vida tan amargo como el hielo
eres un dulce contrapunto.
cada día viajo muy lejos,
pero ahora vuelvo a ti, mi conejo.

Spam overload

300-600 of the damn messages every single day. I give up. It’s time to ditch the email address I’ve had for the last five years. When Faultline was operational, I needed a publicly available email address to allow people to send me news items and such. That’s no longer the case. No reason to endure the spam.

I’ll be switching to a new address in a couple weeks. I’ll be sending out a mass email to everyone in my address book. Let me know — by email or commenting here — if you want me to make sure to give it to you.

The news this morning

I found it interesting to read this story of a local family reacting to a loved one’s death in Iraq. The story is horrifically sad, of course — young man with a family, his most recently scheduled leave postponed again and again and now, of course, forever — but his family’s opposition to the war is treated matter-of-factly and with respect.

Also, can I just send a heartfelt message to the Iowa Fifth Congressional District’s Representative Steve King? Mr King: fuck you. You aren’t fit to carry Maudelle Shirek’s bedpan.

I have been one of Maudelle’s constituents. I have been privileged to share the dais with her while speaking at community events. I have seen her in action, responding to the needs of her district and her city in consistent attempts to make life easier for the poorest among us, while — despite being an evil progressive — being remarkably sympathetic to business owners.

Maudelle Shirek is the most principled, honest and humane politician I have ever met. She is the best American politics has to offer. King’s grandstanding — aside from being ugly and quite likely racially motivated — has a clear message: if you are to the left of Joe Lieberman, you are not a “real American.”

Representative King, I am a proud inheritor of the fine American tradition of left activism. And I commit myself to piss on your grave.

May that day come very soon.

Heading to the Mojave again

Another trip looms to the greater Barstow-Vegas-Needles-Kingman-Tonopah-Wickenburg area, probably in the vicinity of October 20 or so, and lasting a few days.

Eight years ago I quite my job at Terrain — too much bad news had brought me into a depressive pit — and went to the Mojave for four weeks or so. I spent a lot of time looking at the night sky from Cima Dome, watching Orion chase the bull, watching Canis major come to Orion’s heel.

I went by way of Sonora Pass, not the most direct route between the Bay and the Mojave. I camped that night beneath Jeffrey pines at the headwaters of the Owens River. It was cold, and so I lit a fire and cracked open eight or nine beers. There was only one other party in the campground, two young couples up from Los Angeles, and I joked that they knew who to talk to if they accidentally caught too many trout.

Two hours later one of them walked into my site with two fresh trout, gutted and cleaned. Just the day before Matthew had given me a box of camping food: I rummaged and found a plastic bag of slivered almonds. Olive oil and cast iron, and the maple cutting board in the shape of a pig that my grandfather had cut on the jigsaw 35 years previously, and fingers numbed with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and 37-degree nighttime mountain air, and I was happy.

I had brought copies of every single issue of Terrain I had edited, save the most recent. That one was still at the printer. I took the stack and considered it, then leafed through the oldest issue, from five years previous. The half-remembered bad news and the embarrassing typographical mistakes and odd layout decisions leapt out at me.

It caught fire nicely.

So did the next issue, and the issue after that. I started another beer, and put the subsequent issue on without even opening it.

Terrain was a monthly newspaper, and then a monthly magazine, and I had spent a minimum of 250 hours putting each one together. You do the math. Each issue was a month of lost sleep, of arguments with co-workers over budgeting, of explaining that I did in fact need to use the Mac II despite their desire to play SimEarth on it, of waiting for 11 by 17 page spreads to render in Quark on said Mac II with four megs of RAM, of pleading with writers to allow me to reprint their articles from Usenet, or struggling with abysmally written activist prose, of propping my eyes open to get just one more page of corrections entered before I crawled into bed, of bending over the light table to paste up spreads because my employer wouldn’t spend the 100 bucks a month to deliver online documents to the printer. I had hauled each of these issues back from the printer. I had hauled each of them to the post office.

Each one caught, flared, burned to ash in less time than it took me to typeset three paragraphs. I watched the pages curl, friends’ bylines backlit and consumed.

The hangover the next day was formidable. I drove down 395 and then east to Death Valley. A few days later it was October 23, 1997. Eyes on the Pleiades, I toasted the planet earth on its 6000th birthday as defined by James Ussher.

The desert nights are longer and colder without alcohol. Sounds good to me.

Some good news

The Adequan injections seem, slowly, to be working. Zeke actually romped with his pal Tippy this morning. Play bow, prancing, spinning in tight little circles, the whole schtick…

…for a couple minutes, and then he was tired out. But this from a dog who used to cringe when he saw Tippy coming, because wagging his tail just hurt too much.

The Anatomy of Bad News: toward a descriptive taxonomy

I am not proud of my first reaction to the news of the horrendous Boxing Day tsunami. To my mind, my response denotes a state of severe dysfunction, akin to running a temperature of 103F, or of flinching dramatically every single time a family member touches your shoulder.
As you will recall, the tsunami occurred not two months after the re-election of George Bush. I had spent the intervening weeks writing an

article about what the four more years of Bush would be like. I had just sent that article off to the printer, and was working on another one about the newly invigorated nuclear power industry, eagerly awaiting a new round of incentives and perks under Bush. I’d spent the run-up to the election thinking and writing about the revelation the mass extinction now in progress may well be the worst in the earth’s history, if you count the number of species wiped out.

It had been a rough few months. And that’s not even taking into account the usual litany of major episodes of destruction, and my seeming inability to rouse any interest in fighting them from a populace glued to the latest revelations on the election. Entire estuaries wiped out up and down both Baja coasts so that rich gringo yachters can visit and complain about the food for a few days, and the USDA refusing to allow meat companies to do their own tests for Mad Cow while contaminated beef is sold in restaurants in Oakland, crucial fisheries collapsing and children starving and well, too bad. What’s really interesting is whether the US Army had access to superscript typefaces in the early 1970s.

I opened my web browser and read that an undersea earthquake had sent massive walls of water crashing onto hundreds of thousands of people, most of them poor.

My first reaction was relief.

It was followed within seconds by a flood of empathy for the victims, a growing sense of the horror that the killer wave must have brought to bear on an entire basin. I began to leak tears, I dug in my wallet for the credit card to make a donation, I spent a few days reading everything I could on the aftereffects and the survivors.

And I thought about that first, gut reaction. It was very plain, as if spelled out in 72-point type in front of my face.

I was relieved because there was nothing anyone could have done. A disaster had happened that we could not possibly have stopped. The earth shifts all the time, and an oceanic landslide raises a wedge of water to batter a far-off coast. It had nothing to do with the Bush Administration, nothing to do with destruction of the environment, nothing to do with humans at all except as casualties. I could have written the best expose ever written, had a global movement crystallize around it like abolitionists around Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the tsunami would have happened anyway.

Just for a moment, I felt blameless.

I was wrong, of course. Tsunamis happen all the time, but many of the people who died did so because their shoreline homes were no longer protected by fringing mangrove forests and coral reefs. I publish stories on mangroves and reefs all the time. I should have known better. Oh, well.

There are a number of different types of bad news.

There is the bad news that is our birthright, the stuff inseparable from being human, the deaths of family members and ends of relationships, the loss of social prestige and conflict with other people. We feel this keenly, and it washes other considerations from our minds. We are all subject to it.

Then there is the remote bad news that comes in more abstract form, tsunamis, and famines, and extinctions of animals you were unlikely ever to see anyway. To be noticeable, given the distance from the observer, the scale of this sort of bad news must generally be large.

There is the tendency to treat this second kind of bad news as a series of disconnected disasters, evidence that life elsewhere really sucks, confirmation of the notion of American exceptionalism, or that life is cheap in the Third World. This notion does not stand up to much scrutiny, which is probably why few people scrutinize it.

When you do scrutinize the notion, you tend to find that poor people suffer far more than do the rich from disasters, famines, epidemics, and the like. You learn that people are poor because others are rich, and that in some cases and by some definitions of the word “rich,” some of those rich people are sitting in your chair right now. If you are of a certain humanistic frame of mind, you decide to work to mitigate your privilege, as meager as it might seem compared to the richer people around you. You boycott companies that cause tragedy. You donate money, and perhaps even time, to ameliorate the suffering.

And when it seems clear that your efforts are insufficient, you may become an activist, a Jeremiah, warning people that something must be done to avert even greater tragedy.

Which brings us to the third type of bad news: the realization that your work has had no effect. Photos, and then videos, and then confessions of hideous torture are released, and half the American public is just fine with that. You warn that summers will get hotter, and they sneer. When the summers get hotter, you warn that storms will thus become more intense, and they sneer. When the storms become more intense, you warn that our coastal cities are in danger, and they sneer. Trot out a thousand scientists, and they will vote to ban evolution from the curriculum anyway. Tell them of ecosystems collapsing, and they will proudly tell you that they throw their aluminum cans into a separate garbage can. They’ll load up their five kids into the SUV with the “Keep Tahoe Blue” sticker on it, and forget you exist by the time they run out of gas.

Half a nation voted for an obvious, admitted liar whose dissembling was part of an easily accessible public record. They didn’t care. Many of the people I know were shocked. Forget for a moment the repudiation of progressive Twentieth-Century values: the 2004 election seemed a repudiation of the Enlightenment. People were shocked into silence.

I will admit there is an upside to deep experience with that third sort of bad news: I am used to people not listening to me. On November 3, 2004, I was ready to get back to work.

But if you weren’t, if you were aghast that people would do soomething so destructive despite warnings obvious to any intelligent person, I want you to remember how you felt that day. Keep that memory in mind. It will become important.

Prelude to an anatomy of bad news

I became editor of Terrain, a small-circulation monthly environmental newsletter, in May 1992. It was the first job I’d taken in the field of journalism. Today, 13 years and change later, I have work done with several other publications under my belt. A small, regional web magazine, a high-toned dot-com startup, an award-winning quarterly, a radio talk show heard throughout California, a column syndicated throughout the Knight-Ridder chain. I’ve done a couple other jobs here and there, and some freelancing.

Most of the publications I’ve worked for have done advocacy journalism in the environmental field. What this means is that I have spent a significant part of each day for the last 13 years and change feeling obligated, first thing each morning, to look for as much bad news as I could find. Most of the publications I’ve worked for have been severely underfunded. That means that once I found the bad news, there was often nothing I could do about it. Page real estate or freelance volunteer writer bandwidth or just hours in the day have forced a rather brutal triage in what bad news I can address. The rest just sits in my brain, unanswered.

This steady diet of force-fed bad news has taken its toll. No, burnout isn’t looming in my life. Burnout is, in fact, an old friend. I burned out twice before I left Terrain in 1997, once again the first time I tried to work at Earth Island Journal, and I’ve had a few minor episodes between then and now. I have my burnout under control, mostly, and I only take it out for a walk when it really needs one.

But the news has worn a mark on me like glacier-borne gravel polishing a boulder. I can tell you in some detail, for instance, the field marks that distinguish debilitating depression from a mere overwhelming sadness. I can describe four or five different kinds of jaded. I can tell you where the stereotype of Journalist as Alcoholic comes from, and why it’s a wise career strategy.

Bad news is seductive. If you read the earlier posts on this blog, for instance, you will see a peculiar detachment from the grand events of the day. This was deliberate. I needed a place somewhere to write about things not having to do with the Bush Administration. I spent every day writing the howls of outrage; I needed some place to write about kingfishers and egrets.

Obviously that didn’t last long, and I have to remind myself every so often these days that this blog is named for a creek that has not run through its pages in some time.

I have been working, this past year, on an idea, a germ of an essay, on the anatomy of bad news. I decided to begin in earnest when Iris Chang killed herself. The rampant speculation that a short, intense lifetime of reporting bad news had stolen her will to live turned out not to be precisely accurate, but the unanimity of the early reporting of her death told me that the notion of Deadly Bad News was worth exploring, especially in the wake of the Bush re-election. I did a little research. I talked to some people I know who have exposed some very bad news indeed to a jaded public. I was ready to start writing.

And then a massive tsunami struck the north parts of the Indian Ocean, killing hundreds of thousands of people. My initial reaction to the news shocked the hell out of me. I realized I needed to do some thinking before I wrote. The bad news, obviously, has not slackened since December 26.

And now we have lost a major US city, and I spent that week watching the horrifying news out of New Orleans instead of writing my article on two entire ecosystems between my home and that city going extinct.

It is time to start writing, whether or not I am ready.

Over the next few days, I’ll be putting together a series of blog posts on the anatomy of bad news. I’m breaking the ideas up into small pieces in part as an attempt at kindness to my readers — bad news is best swallowed in small bites — and in part because that’s how bad news arrives, mostly. My goal is to spark a bit of discussion about the effects that this non-stop diet of bad news has on all of us — because I know damn well I’m not the only one feeling it — and to explore the jadedness, the cynicism to which we are all prey from time to time in response to bad news.