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Drinking the Kool-Aid
A couple weeks before I moved to Los Angeles, I found a drawing I’d made when I was six. It was at the bottom of a box labelled Goodwill? The unintentionally abstract illustration shows a long, sparkling, red convertible, with a somehow dripping Hollywood sign in the distance. A tall, dangerously thin, flowing-haired young woman leans against the shimmering hood, her hand holding a cellphone to her ear. At the top of the crumpled piece of construction paper I’d written Hayley, 21-years-old?.
I turned twenty-six a few weeks before coming to L.A.
I definitely did not have a convertible; I tossed a Honda Civic rental onto my buckling Visa. And my cellphone barely worked in the U.S.
I had been in L.A. for forty-four days. Tal’s company put me up in a sketchy basement apartment. If I hadn’t been living underground, I bet I would have been able to see the Hollywood sign from my window.
I pushed all the cheap furniture up against the poorly painted walls in the living room and devoted two hours every morning to P90X. I was determined to at least appear as though I’d made it, and that started with a rigorous workout regimen. My goal was to have at least a few people say they were worried about me when I went home to Winnipeg for Christmas.
Tal was this charming, vibrant, extraordinary writer. He almost instantly became my new favourite person. He was funny and tall and dark and took up all the space in every room, and I was convinced that if he thought I could make it, I could.
My first two months in L.A. consisted of driving to the studio every morning at 8:00 a.m. and spending four hours alone in Tal’s vocal booth before getting booted into the tiny, fluorescent-lit storage space in the back of the building. I would sit at a desk that was dwarfed by a horrendous neon mural and wait for him to pop his head out of his room, perhaps offering me an opportunity to write something with him.
It felt like a sort of long-winded audition, and I thought I was doing well. He would dip into my little incubator every few hours to see if I’d written a hit or to say, “Come on. We’re walking to the grocery store.”
He made me laugh on the way while casually lecturing me about songwriting and the industry and who to trust. Then he’d buy a watermelon, a pound of cold cuts, and a bag of almonds and we would walk back together. And he trusted me. He told me about the two women he was in love with, how deeply he loved them both, how he didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know about each other, but that didn’t make me think less of him. I felt welcomed into his inner circle. I felt like his confidant and friend. I saw him as a struggling man and I was glad he had me to talk to.
We would drop the food in the fridge, then we’d head outside, where I’d watch him play basketball alone with his shirt off for half an hour before we got back to work.
He had a two-bedroom apartment in North Hollywood and decided to rescue me from the Hollywood basement he’d put me in. I thought living with him would be fun. I’d get rid of my rental car and commute to the studio with him. He understood that I didn’t have money and couldn’t really make any, since I was officially a tourist, so he’d feed me and take care of me in a way that made me feel like I’d found a little home.
At the studio, I spent a lot of time in the bathroom. I didn’t need to use it. I just didn’t really feel like writing. I’d go and look in the mirror for ten or fifteen seconds, decide whether I loved or hated my body that day, then flush the toilet with nothing in it, run the tap to suggest I was washing my hands, and walk out. Maybe take an ass selfie for whatever guy was getting my ass selfies at that time. I somehow felt that by taking multiple bathroom breaks, I would at least seem productive. Like these pee breaks were the result of hard work and perseverance.
One morning of a long weekend, when most of the producers were with their families, it was just the two of us in the building. I came out of the bathroom and looked for Tal. He wasn’t in the common room or shoving cold cuts into his mouth in the kitchen. There was almost no noise coming out of his studio room, so I knocked without expectation.
He said, “Come in. I wanna play you a new song.” He opened his computer. I paused in embarrassment for him. On the screen a girl with long black hair was getting fucked from behind while she sucked off some Tarzan-looking dude in front of her.
Tal left the screen open long enough for the man in her mouth to finish on her rosy-pink cheeks and lips, sealing her eyes shut like he was planning on making her a papier-mâché mask. Then he said, “Oh shit. That’s embarrassing,” and closed his computer.
He pulled out a guitar to play the song live. He sang with his whole heart, all emotional and generous with the intimacy of his performance. It felt like an invitation into his private self.
We just sort of casually moved past the accidental porn mishap, though I guess I suddenly knew what he liked. And suddenly he knew that I knew what he liked. It felt like this weird shared moment actually brought us closer. Like walking in on somebody masturbating. You can’t unsee it — you can only decide together to pretend like you didn’t or, at the very least, pretend it didn’t leave a totally indelible imprint.
He took me for Korean barbecue, then moved me into his apartment. _
Like Geezer Butler in Black Sabbath, to reiterate, Geddy indeed began on guitar. Alex, however, missed this part of Lee’s evolution.
“I didn’t know Ged when he played guitar. So the transition was already completed by the time we started jamming together and playing. Because that’s what we did after school. We’d plug into his amp and play. There was one guitar and one bass. So I’m not really sure about that transition. I’m sure he was interested in guitar like everybody was interested in guitar. But once we actually started playing and learning instruments, that was his chosen one. Just think John Rutsey in that early days—the drums became his thing but I don’t know if in his heart he wanted to be a drummer. I think he wanted to be a guitarist as well. But everybody had their job that they sort of gravitated to.”
Says Geddy, “I was nominated to be the bass player when the first band I was in, the bass player couldn’t be in our band. I think his parent’s prohibited him or something, and we had no bass player so they said, ‘You play bass’ and I said okay, and that was how simple it was. That happens to a lot of bass players. Everyone wants to be a guitar player, but I was happy to be bass player. Bass player is like being a major league catcher. It’s the quickest way to the majors. Nobody wants to be a bass player. It’s a great instrument, it really is, awesome way to spend your time. I had teachers you know; I’m just carrying on the tradition of Jack Bruce, Jack Casady, Chris Squire, a fine tradition of noisy bass players that refuse to stay in the background. So I feel that’s my sacred duty, to carry on what they started.”
Dear Little JO,*
I guess when you read this letter you’ll be sitting right here looking at what I’m looking at. The front of Ms. Khang’s English classroom with the old-?fashioned blackboard and the posters offamous book covers and the Thought of the Day and this new thing, this big wooden box painted in bright colors. I mean you don’t know me because I just drew your name randomly. And if you’re in grade ten this will be your first course with Ms. Khang, which means you don’t know her as a teacher yet either. Pretty weird getting a letter from a total stranger I bet. Or how about getting a letter period, in this day and age.
Khang stands up there taking as much time as possible telling us what this box is for. She’s turning it around and around to show off her paint job, tilting it forward to show the two slots in the top, pointing out the separate combination lock for each lid. All that buildup. After a while we’re all expecting doves to fly out of it or something. And then poor Khang looks all disappointed when we’re disappointed that it turns out to be only a mailbox. Which is the whole problem with buildup. Well you’ll see it foryourself pretty soon I guess.
On the board it says Introduce Yourself. So my name is Adam Kurlansky and this is Grade Twelve Applied English. One of the courses I flunked last year, which now I’m regretting because this assignment is not something I’m all that interested in. A letter every week for the entire semester. *JO stands for Jerkoff in case you were wondering. I’m sticking it here in the middle of the letter instead of at the top because Khang wants us to hold up the paper to show her before we put it in the envelope. To prove we actually filled the minimum one page, since she’s not actually planning on reading our letters herself. If she asks me I guess I’ll just say JO is short for your name, Jonathan.
Don’t take it the wrong way. I figure it’s fair game to call you a little jerkoff even though I don’t know you personally because I was one too, as a sophomore. Only most likely not as little. I was already pretty close to my full height by then: six foot three.
I mean I see you all in the halls with your faces turning red whenever I catch you staring at me. You’re like these arcade gophers popping in and out of holes. People know who I am because of being a bunch of credits behind and not graduating and having to come crawling back for the so-called victory lap. Or not because of that. More likely because of football I guess. Because they decided to let me keep playing football.
It felt like hours, but I honestly had no idea how much time passed. Clay noticed I was breathing at a normal pace again and he asked, "You ready to go back home?"
"Not really," I said. "Can't we just stay here?" I felt embarrassed that Clay had seen me like that. But I was really grateful he took me away from it all.
"You could, but your mom would probably freak out," Clay said with a half grin.
"She's always freaking out these days," I sighed. "We should go back, I guess."
Clay snapped his fingers and the darkness began to fade away. The stars fizzed out and once everything was said and done, it didn't look much different at all. The moon was resting above us, while stars were all around the sky.
"How long were we there?" I asked.
"A while, but don't worry. Are you okay?"
"I don't know," I admitted. I got to my feet and wiped the grass off my jeans. How could I be okay after that?
I turned around and saw my truck still parked in the same spot. We pulled out of the area and went back the highway towards Yarmouth. I didn't want the road to end. I wanted to keep driving. Driving felt like I was finally in control of something for once in my life. Nobody could take that away from me. Not a stupid city, not Mom, not a stupid attendance sheet. We eventually made it back to the city and once we got close to the path Clay said, "I'm around if you need me."
I looked to my right and he was gone.
I had a feeling Mom would be waiting for me, and sure enough, she was on the front porch in her housecoat.
"Anna!" she whispered-yelled. "Where were you?"
When I saw Mom, I didn't know how to react. I kept thinking about her being the young woman in the grey hoodie, hanging out in that trailer where that man lived. I knew I couldn't bring it up; it would only make things worse.
"I was...at Tia's place."
"No you weren't," she cut in. "I called and you weren't there." She crossed her arms. "Not only that," she continued, "but I got a call from Ms. Anderson today. Why weren't you in class? Apparently this wasn't the first time, either."
"Nothing to say for yourself? C'mon Anna. You're better than that. You're better than this."
How dare she say that? After I seen what I had seen, those words coming out of her mouth were like some sick joke. Her validation wasn't a hill I wanted to die on. She was the one who took me away from everything in my hometown and expected me to come back and pretend everything was normal. But this wasn't normal. Grampy dying without us here, and Mom expecting me to finish off grade eleven in the school he taught at wasn't normal. Abruptly moving back to my hometown with no timeline of our stay wasn't normal. Never mentioning my father and pretending he didn't exist wasn't normal.
There was nothing normal about any of this.
"Your grandfather worked so hard for everything he accomplished here," Mom was saying now. "He worked so hard for me, he worked so hard for you. I don't want you to go down this road. I don't want you to let him down."
That's when I lost it.
"Hold up!" I yelled. "Me letting him down?! You're the one who never visited in years. You never even saw him before he died!" I couldn't contain myself. "Then you have the nerve to hold me to some higher expectation after ripping me away from my hometown. Bringing me along to Halifax so you could study. I was fine here, Mom! I would have been fine, but no. You just had to take me along so you could say you did all by yourself while having a daughter!" I knew that last part wasn't fair, but I was done being nice. "You didn't even take into consideration my feelings when we left Yarmouth. You just left, and I never had a say!"
I didn't know where this furious energy was coming from, but I wasn't backing down.
"I'm not just some plot device in your story, Mom. I'm my own person. Now we're suddenly back here, and we're supposed to act like everything is normal? Are we supposed to act like Grampy being gone is normal? Am I just supposed to tighten my bootstraps and move on? Don't you think it hurts being in the school where he taught? Don't you think it hurts having Nan treat me like a stranger? Is that supposed to be normal? And do you think that we're supposed to pretend my dad doesn't still live in this town? Or do you just edit him out of the equation because it's easier for you, rather than having a conversation with your daughter?"
I could see the emotions shift on Mom's face. From angry to frustrated to disappointed to just...lost. I had never seen her like that before. I didn't know what else to say. I don't think there was anything else I could say after that. Who did she think she was? How was she acting any different now than Nan did when she broke curfew in the memory?
"Annaka, that's not a line you cross." Mom crossed her arms walking towards me.
"No. I'm just supposed to pretend the line isn't even there, right? I'm just supposed to accept things the way they are." I threw my hands up in exasperation. "We've been here for weeks, and you haven't even toyed with the idea of me meeting my dad."
That caused her to pause.
"Some people are better left in the past," Mom said quietly.
"And some people resent the ones who keep secrets," I shot back. "Where is he? Where is he, huh?"
Mom shook her head. "I'm not having this conversation with you."
"You never do."
"You're right, I never do," Mom agreed as she walked up the stairs. "You do what you want, it's your life after all. If you wanna be a high school dropout, if you want to fail and tarnish the good name of Rudy Brooks, then you do you."
"Oh, that's new," I spat. "You're making it about someone else for once."
That's when she looked back at me and I saw she was actually a little choked up. It was then I knew how hard my words had hit because she didn't reply, she just continued up the stairs.
Everything was silent. I stood there feeling a mixture of things, regret, anger, but mostly sadness. I didn't want that to go down the way it did, but it did. After a few minutes I walked upstairs to my room and lay in bed. I was trying to remember when things were easier. Before death, before grief, and before loss. Those were the ingredients that scrambled my whole world.
I lay in bed thinking. I couldn't believe I had seen my dad. That had to be him, right? His name was Blake Morrison. Could he still be in town? Could he be gone? Of course Mom wouldn't talk about it. I rolled over to look outside through a gap in the curtains; there were a lot of stars in the sky tonight. I decided I wanted a better view, so I grabbed my comforter and went outside. I climbed up to the treehouse, placing my head in my hands wishing I knew what I was looking for.
The first thing you need to remember is that I'm no longer down where you are, haven't been down your way in years, in what you people call the land of the living. You could say I'm in the wind, a song riding the airwaves and the frost in the air that paints leaves orange. As the rain and the sunshine do, I go where I want. The wind's whistling carries me, takes me back, oh yes, to when the radio filled the house with Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys singing "My Life's Been A Pleasure." Though I'm not sure I would go that far. Freed of life's woes, these days I see joys that, in life, I just guessed up. If you know anything about me, you might be thinking, oh my, that one's better off out of her misery. Which might be true, but, then again, might not. But I dare say, without the body I dwelt in and the hands that came with it, I wouldn't have gotten up to half of what I did in your world, I'd have spent my days doing what you do. Where'd be the fun in that?
The best thing about up here is the view. Now, I'm not so high up that folks look like dirt specks and cars like hard candies travelling the roads. Nor am I so low down that you can reach up and grab a draught of me in your fist. Up here, no one gets to grab on to anybody, or be the boss. No shortage of bossy boots down your way, folks only too certain they know best. So it was when I lived below, in a piece of paradise some called the arse-end of nowhere. I wouldn't make that kind of judgment myself. Mostly I kept to myself; for a long time doing just that was easy. Out in the sticks there are lots of holes to hide down, until someone gets it in their head to haul you out of yours. Next, the whole world is sniffing at your door, which isn't always a bad thing. Like living in the arse-end of nowhere isn't a bad thing, pardon this habit of speech I learned down your way. Habits die hard, even here. Except, here I get away with whatever I want, which is a comfort and a blessing. Comforts and blessings mightn't be so plentiful where you are. Here, for example, a gal can cuss to her heart's content and who is gonna say boo?
And that view! Now I can see backwards, forwards, straight up and down instead of sideways or tilted, I can look at things face on the way, before, I just guessed things up and painted them in pictures. When it suits me, I hover at gull-level where hungry birds cruise the shore for snacks, or at crow-level, where the peckish seek treats spilled by roadsides. Food aside, it's grand up here. I see the fog tug itself like a dress over Digby Neck and the road travelling south to north, pretty much tracing the route that took me from birth to this spot up here. Apart from the coastline's jigs and jags, as the crow flies north to south is a fairly straight line from the ridge where my bones lie to where I grew up.
Those who don't know better call this otherworld "glory." But, looking down at the green of Digby County stretching into Yarmouth County, a patchwork of woods and fields set against the blue of St. Mary's Bay, I'd call this part of your world "glory." If I were the churchy type, which I am not and never was. Though I did enjoy a good gospel song if it was the Carter Family singing it. Some days a good old country song was my lifeline to the world. Each melody crackling over the airwaves got to be a chapter of my life, its sweet notes looped in with the sour ones.
Churchiness aside, I know attention when I see it. Folks flocking to see my paintings, paying big dollars for them. Imagine if they'd paid me back then what they pay now, travelling from all over to see my home. Though that would be pissing in the wind, wouldn't it? For you can't take nothing with you. You land here as naked as when you land where you are. All the money in the world won't change it. Yet I wouldn't have minded being sent off properly. Wearing my ring, I mean, all polished and shiny and on the right finger, and everything right with the world. A badge of honour, say. Maybe if I'd heeded my aunt's Bible talk—not about turning the other cheek to have someone smite it too, but about being wise as a serpent, gentle as a dove—things would've played out different. My husband had serpent-wisdom galore, I was the dovely one. But if I'd got the serpent part down pat, who's to say I mightn't have turned half cur and bitten the hand that fed me?
But, about that wedding band. Marriage means where the one party flags the other party takes up the slack, making the couple one big happy serpent-dove. According to such logic my man and me ought to have been two sides of the same dime tucked in a jar for safekeeping: equals. I let on that we were. Why I did is for me to know and you to find out. Your world will always have folks who take advantage of those with no choice but to let them. Up here, things even out. No one owns a thing, not the earth, sunshine, rain, or fire, and most certainly not the wind.
And in the end, what sweetness it is to enjoy a blue moon, and just paint it in your mind's eye, no need to fumble with a brush! It's easy to love something named for a colour. Though other things about being up here mightn't be to everyone's taste, people don't exactly line up for tickets to get here, do they. If you're the type that's all go go go, the pace is hurry up and wait. As for reunions with loved ones, well, I am still waiting, but I haven't given up hope, no sirree. And there are other things to like about this so-called glory. The insects don't bite, unlike the no-see-ums that plague you every season but winter. And there are cats aplenty, don't let anyone tell you cats aren't allowed, as if up here is your chesterfield. You just can't see or pat them. Their purr might be what you hear when a motorbike goes by or a boat with a make-and-break puts out to sea.
Even better than the view is the moon's company, as steadfast as memories you cannot shake. The moon doesn't care who tramps over her face or journeys to her dark side. Let her keep her secrets, I say. Though she doesn't mind shining her light on ours, and under her shine things buried and thought missing come to light, even things we reckon are gone for good—with an exception. For I have been searching high and low for that ring, the gold band I once put on with pride. When I could still wear a ring. The ring that belonged to me, even if it wasn't always mine. What a shitload of stories it would tell if it could, if anyone laid their fingers on it. Where it got to is a mystery, the way here is a mystery. Then again, where you are might be a mystery too, memories the only things we have that are certain. Bearing a weight all their own, they wax and wane. Like my pal, they hang around, old and full-blown or new and shy, whether they are pictures we paint of ourselves or pitchers of us that others pour out.
If only I could put my finger on when and where I last saw that ring. Thinking of it takes me back to a bright March moon, a night more than fifty years ago now, a night so long ago those men that first walked on her still had three years to go before stepping foot there. The moon pouring down her light is what springs to mind first. Pretty as that March night was back in 1966, I've spent a long time trying to forget it, and to forget about mud and dirt and footsteps and things on and in the ground. Buried things. For, as you will learn soon enough, things buried and unearthed are the undoing of us all.
All around me that night the county slept sound as a bear in winter, so it was in the wee hours beneath that moon. It was one of those cold, clear nights after a thaw, when frost silvers the meanest buds and you think the pussy willows have got a jump on April—until a snowstorm blows in and covers everything.
One step forward, two steps back. That was spring in our neck of the woods, never mind where you found yourself.
To this day, I have no clue what time it was I awoke. My husband had brought me upstairs hours before. From the nearby woods an owl screeched, but that was the only sound. It was either too late or too early for the crows to be up, not just any crows but the ones setting up house in our yard. The lady crow had recently stolen my fancy.
My man got up. His sharp, sudden moves near pitched me from the bed. Wide awake, I listened to him scuttle across the floor and shimmy down through the hatch. The stairs shuddered under his weight. I heard him scuffling about below, heard the rustle of him grabbing his jacket and his boots left warming by the range. The door creaked open and banged shut behind him. His footsteps stirred the gravel out front, slouched along the side of the house before they grew faint. Off to wake the crows and lure my favourite with a crust of bread, set to win her affection? (I do believe Everett envied my friendship with Matilda, never mind she was just a crow.)
I thought with a start he must be off to the almshouse, was after taking the shortcut out back—see how the mind plays tricks in the dead of night? He had not worked over there in three, going on four years by this time, which was roughly the last time I'd seen my friend Olive, the warden's wife, when she finally realized it was no place to raise her boys. With a shiver of relief, I heard the creak of hinges from the shed nearest the house. It was where Ev liked to partake of his TNT cocktail, homebrew in the years before we had money, and then store bought later on.
August 2015, New York City
While I scan the sale racks, Zee bumps around the nearby plus-size section yelling, “Mom — this one!” every minute or so. I suppose little kids think all ladies’ sizes are the same. I yell back, “Thanks, but no!” The two of us are probably driving the saleswoman crazy with our bellowing.
I show her a polka-dotted dress with cap sleeves, the sort of thing I might have worn in the classroom on a hot September day. Its asymmetrical hem is whimsical, yet age-appropriate. Most years, I’ve done this shopping while in countdown-to-Labour-Day mode, both anticipating and dreading my return to work at Morrison High School. But I gave my resignation two weeks ago, and the year stretches ahead like a flat and deserted highway.
Last year, when Murtuza and I first considered spending his academic sabbatical in India, I applied for a much-needed unpaid leave while he investigated Mumbai teaching gigs. The same week my request was declined, he received an opportunity to teach the graduate course he’s been designing in his mind for years. Lenore, my vice-principal and mentor, suggested I quit, recover from my burnout, and work for her educational consulting business after Murtuza’s sabbatical. So here we are — Zee and I — searching for a dress I can take on our trip to India.
“Pretty,” Zee assesses, pushing a strand of her short hair behind her ear. Recently she’s begun to have opinions about the clothing I set out for her each day. Last week she rejected half of my choices, so today I’ve encouraged her to make her own selections. She’s wearing a yellow top with an emerald skirt and aquamarine socks, which doesn’t look as bad as it sounds. Me, I’ve matched my beige blouse to a pair of brown shorts. My sandals are a shade in between.
I try on the dress, Zee’s appraising eyes upon me. She cocks her head, her bangs falling into her face. “Mom, it fits, it looks good. But buy it in red, not black.” Her tone is slightly mocking, like a makeover show host’s. The sales clerk rushes to fetch one, taking orders from a girl just turned seven.
Later, on our way to the food court to share an order of Wong’s lemon chicken, Zee stops me at Forever 21. I protest but change my mind when I notice one of my students, Farah, behind the register. She just graduated, and used to walk the hallways like a fashion model. A few months ago, Principal Pereira stopped to scold her for showing too much cleavage. I’d disagreed with the judgment but couldn’t contradict Pereira. Farah reached into her backpack to layer a sweater over her blouse, but it was off again by the time she reached my classroom.
“Mom, look at these!” Zee points out a ten-dollar rack of frilly skirts. “Can I get one? You can get one, too, and we can match!” I call Farah over and she helps us find a size zero that fits loosely over Zee’s straight hips. Not even their largest size, a fourteen, can pass over mine.
“I just bought a size twelve dress at JC Penney,” I complain.
“Yeah, our sizes are super small. Sorry.” Farah shrugs.
“You can still get yours, Zee. It’s a good price.”
“No,” she pouts, “not if you can’t wear a matching one.”
“We’ll look for something while we’re in India,” I console, glad that my daughter still wants to look like me, at least sometimes.
* * *
In the evening, Murtuza and I meet on the couch for the married person’s evening ritual: TV. Along with a nightly bowl of microwave popcorn, we’ve been putting away two episodes of The Mindy Project after Zee is in bed. We guffaw and cringe in the same places; we are diasporic South Asian children of immigrants communing over the embarrassing life of a diasporic South Asian child of immigrants.
While the credits roll, Murtuza leans over, kisses my neck, and says, “Shall we turn it off now, or watch another episode?”
“Sure, Murti, we can turn it off,” I say, sensing his preference. After all, it is Saturday and 9:00 p.m. I’d prefer to hit play, to be distracted by someone else’s awkward world, but I appreciate my husband’s good-natured and consistent initiative-taking. My friends and I talk about our lacklustre sex lives and waning libidos, and I feel like I’m the lucky one amongst us. At least we can say we are still doing it, rather than being in couples’ therapy because we aren’t. Or breaking up because we aren’t. Or having extra-marital affairs because we aren’t.
* * *
I’d never cheated in my life, neither on a test nor a time sheet. When my naturopath directed me to eliminate sugar, dairy, wheat, and caffeine last year to improve my immune system’s functioning, I followed her instructions, to the letter, for sixty days.
How to make sense of the affair, then? It was just over four years ago, when Zee was three. Ian, a guy I once slept with, friend-requested me on Facebook. I recall experiencing a twinge of something, a flutter in my belly I could have interpreted as a prescient warning. I brushed away the sensation and thought, Nah, it’s just Facebook, and it’s been ages since we last saw each other. Plus, I’d heard from a friend in common that he’d moved to England. I thought we’d share a few likes, perhaps a little lurking. No problem.
At the time, I couldn’t admit to myself that it was cheating. There were no secret liaisons in two-and-half-star motels we’d paid for in cash. No late-night phone calls. No sexy photos. Leave it me to have an affair without ever really having an affair.
I layered on a thick foundation of denial until Murtuza found out. On a cool autumn evening, I returned home from Fresh Food Mart, lugging two heavy totes. When I saw his pained expression, I dropped the groceries, my fingers refusing to pretend that things were normal. Oranges rolled across the floor and I scrambled to collect them, glad for the small diversion of runaway citrus.
I’d left my computer on, my account open. Normally he wouldn’t have used my laptop, but he’d forgotten his at his office and needed to order a book online. That’s what he told me, anyway. I hope it was nothing more than that. I heard somewhere that eighty percent of betrayed spouses know when something is amiss and ambivalently search for evidence to the contrary. I don’t like to think about Murtuza being a part of that statistical majority. A part of me was self-righteous and indignant about the breach of privacy (“What were you doing snooping around on my Facebook account, anyway?”), but that fell flat when he looked at me beseechingly. “Why?” he asked, tears streaming down his cheeks. I wanted to dry his tears before they dripped off his chin onto the floor.
I sputtered a denial, “Nothing happened!”
He picked up my laptop and read aloud the latest message I’d sent to Ian. I went silent, and Murtuza continued reading, his voice growing louder, my indiscreet sentences to Ian booming and echoing off the kitchen tiles. I still said nothing, couldn’t form words, imagined Murtuza leaving me, our marriage ending over something so stupid. I felt like a failure, to both my husband and daughter.
He stomped down to the basement, and I crept upstairs to check on three-year-old Zee, who was fast asleep despite all the yelling. I watched her breathe and wept for the end of my good life. Then I headed to the kitchen, unfriended Ian, and turned off the laptop. I considered padding down the stairs to talk to Murtuza, but I knew it would be pointless. His questions and thoughts and feelings would swarm around me like angry wasps and I’d be unable to do anything but bat them away.
Murtuza slept on the basement pullout for three days. Each time he emerged to look after Zee or make himself a snack, I attempted impromptu explanations, wishing I was more articulate, had rehearsed a few repentant lines. I’ve never been good at communicating my feelings when overwhelmed. He moved back to our bedroom but wouldn’t talk to or touch me for another three days, despite my pleas and cajoling. Then, at last, on the seventh day, he threatened to end the marriage unless we saw a professional. He quoted facts and figures about infidelity and the importance of seeking immediate help. It was probably Murtuza who told me the statistic about cheated-on partners looking for clues.
Dr. Stanley met us together for the first session, during which Murtuza did most of the talking. I scanned the spacious office, which was mostly outfitted with Ikea furniture. Between nodding at Murtuza’s statements of why we were there, I mentally listed: Malm, Hemnes, Ektorp, Flöng, some of the items that fill our home. For years after we bought our bed, we referred to it as our Brimnes, our private joke. When had we stopped doing that?
During the following week’s one-on-one session that she called an “assessment,” Dr. Stanley wore her steel-grey hair in a single braid down her back, instead of loose, as she’d done during the couples’ session. She recommended that I break off contact with Ian, and I pouted and told her I’d already completed that act of contrition. She might have misinterpreted my stiff embarrassment as lack of guilt because she leaned forward in her seat and spoke loudly, perhaps thinking that her increased volume would help me comprehend the gravity of my situation. She insisted that I commit to owning the cheating, and I imagined it was like an expensive, later regretted, purchase. I understood what she was getting at but couldn’t help protesting, “But I didn’t even kiss him! I didn’t get to do anything! Nothing actually happened between us during those two months of messaging each other!” I was like a snot-nosed kid who’d been caught before tasting a shoplifted candy bar.
“Do you wish you had?” She puckered her lips and nodded, perhaps in an effort to look sympathetic. Had she ever cheated on the bald guy in the portrait on her desk? Maybe she understood my longing?
“Yes and no. I never wanted to hurt Murtuza.” I didn’t meet her gaze and instead focused on the hypnotic blue lines winding their way through her area rug. I wondered what its Ikea name might be. Then my hour was up.
Murtuza had his own individual session that week. I asked him how it went and he said, “Fine. You?” I said my session went fine, too.
A week later, Dr. Stanley began our session with a monologue mostly addressed to my side of the room. She suggested that I was seeking something lost, something left behind that wasn’t literally Ian, but a part of myself that I’d once expressed with Ian. I didn’t know what she was talking about, but my eyes welled up in response.
Murtuza took my hand, and his own eyes moistened, his black lashes made even prettier by his tears. I hated myself for hurting this man with pretty eyelashes. I hated myself for almost sabotaging my marriage to this man with pretty eyelashes.
I used to call the shadow my old friend. It seemed less frightening that way. I would say it with a wry smile, but nobody else would find it funny.
It has been such a long time since the shadow last came around. “I think I’ve been defriended,” I once said to Elias. He just looked at me, unamused.
I suppose I’ve been too busy with the wedding arrangements to think much about the shadow. It doesn’t like to be forgotten though. It always lingers nearby. As I arrived at the hotel yesterday, I should have predicted that the shadow would make an appearance. After all, it is an old friend.
The Terrace Bar is different today. I feel it as soon as I step inside. Something foreign in the air greets me like a scent I can’t quite place. It’s darker here than in the rest of the hotel. It struck me as odd when I first saw it yesterday, this gloomy cavern hidden within a palace of light.
My eyes adjust and all I see are flowers. They’re an unnatural shade of yellow, worn by a woman softened with age, her skin like an overripe plum. She’s seated alone at a table and stares straight ahead, motionless. The sadness on her face is even more unnerving against the yellow flowers of the dress hanging limply on her.
A few other guests sit at tables scattered throughout the room. Like the woman in the floral dress, their stares are fixed on something in front of them.
The bartender stands behind the long countertop to my left, framed by a wall of glass bottles. He greeted me with such warmth yesterday. Every smile he gave felt earned, inviting my confidence whenever he leaned forward or held eye contact longer than what I’d usually find comfortable. Now his arms are crossed over his chest, his eyes narrowed. A dishtowel lies forgotten over one shoulder. He’s staring in the same direction as everyone else in the dim room, his head tilted upward as though listening to god.
Following their gaze, I see it’s something ordinary: a television set mounted on the wall behind the bar’s counter. I can’t quite tell what they’re watching, but it looks like the ocean. The waves are more grey than blue, churning across the screen with lashes of foam.
Why is everyone so interested in this?
Several jagged objects come into view. They rock along with the rhythm of the waves, the red paint bold against the coldness of the sea. Their shapes lack symmetry.
Are they little boats?
A woman appears on the screen. She’s dressed inoffensively in neutral tones and crisp lines. Her delicate hands are placed on the surface of a lacquered desk. I hear her voice but don’t hear the words.
My body begins to shiver like a taut wire as my phone vibrates in my pocket. I don’t reach for it, like I normally would. It goes off again. And again. I just let it continue its inaudible cry, a silent alarm bell. But I don’t need to read the messages or answer the calls. I know what has happened, why everyone at home suddenly feels the need to get hold of me. I know what everyone in the room is seeing on the television, what those floating objects are. I know, because I’ve always known this would happen one day. Today is that day.
The shadow comes to me.
I recognize it immediately, even though it has been so long.
It cloaks itself around my body. I feel its touch, a sickening static. A familiar numbness washes over me.
It seeps into my skin. The pricking begins softly before it gets sharper, quicker. A thousand stabbing needles.
It whispers in my ears. A deadening hum surrounds me.
Hello, old friend.
Invisible hands wrap around my throat.
I can’t breathe.
I can’t move.
If I had been paying closer attention earlier, I might have seen it in the periphery of my vision, felt its touch against the tips of my fingers. It was so close.
I don’t know how long I stand there before my legs can move again. They march me out of the dim room, and I stumble through the hall. The light sears my retinas. The sound of my shoes on the cold floor becomes louder with every step as the hum subsides. I find my suite, the door emblazoned with numbers polished so well I can see my reflection in them. My hand shakes as it fumbles in my pocket for the key.
I throw myself into the room and slam the door shut behind me. I pull the curtains closed and switch on the television above the dresser.
This must be a mistake.
The unholy messenger in the neutral tones stares back at me, though she seems less benign. There is an emptiness in her eyes as her lips move. I can understand her words now.
Flight XI260 was on its way to Vancouver from Berlin when it crashed into the Arctic Ocean one hour ago. There were 314 passengers on board, including fifteen crew members, one relief pilot, one captain, and one co-pilot.
A face appears, and I know it so well. The square chin and uneven lips that make him look more arrogant than he is. The arrowhead slope of his nose, something he’s always been self-conscious of.
Most striking of all, the darkness of his irises. Almost black, they reflect the light as tiny white orbs — two satellites in the night sky.
He’s the man I’m supposed to marry in seven days, this co-pilot.
His name is Elias.
Petra was soaking in the bath, reading the newspaper, when she called out from the bathroom: “Manfred! You simply won’t believe it!”
This was at the farmhouse, our hub for political organizing, thirty kilometres southwest of Bonn. The house was just outside a village whose name was never important to us. Picture a few desultory cows. A pile of tires in the field next door, unmoved for the five years we occupied the space. We were here for the cheap rent and the large kitchen under heavy blackened beams. The thick walls smelled of yeast and were cool even in the height of summer. We organized, talked, yelled sometimes; the bedrooms were often covered in mattresses for the itinerant activists who came and went as we built our movement.
I was bent over my cast-iron skillet like an old grandmother in a fairy tale, cooking a lamb stew. I’d browned the cubes of meat, adding wine, then stock and vegetables, scraping the good bits from the bottom. A piece of mushroom had found its way into my beard. When Petra called, I glanced up to see frost on the window. It looked like a towered city capped by blazing stars.
That city of frost has stayed with me long after other memories have died. Ice is important to this story. Petra, when she finally decided to flee, would flee to a land of ice. But in my memory it is mixed with another image: that night I wore an apron that Katrina (ex-girlfriend) had left behind when she stormed from the house, banging the walls, kicking the door with her big black boots. It showed a jovial chef brandishing a barbeque fork on which was affixed a beaded bratwurst sausage. He himself wore an apron with another chef also brandishing a bratwurst, and so on and so on, the chefs and their sausages becoming tinier and tinier, to infinity.
January 1980. Exactly two months after the announcement that rocked Europe. NATO planned to station intermediate-range nuclear missiles in West Germany. An ultimatum to the East, to Russia and its satellite states: remove your own nuclear missiles, the SS-20s, from East Germany, or in less than three years we roll ours in. A faceoff across the Iron Curtain; the United States spoke of fighting a “limited nuclear war” in Europe; everyone was afraid for the state of the world. As now, it was hard to think about the future without feeling a profound sense of Total Despair. These nuclear weapons were like sick boxes of death, each one full of a firepower that could destroy the world a hundred times over. The esteemed Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set its nuclear clock two minutes closer to midnight.
But at the centre of this dangerous world, our little band of sisters and brothers—led by the charismatic Petra Kelly—had a counterplan. It focused on the new political party we were building.
The stew was bubbling. I stirred in a bit more broth, and then picked my way through the many shoes in the hallway to the bathroom.
I should say that Petra and I hadn’t been lovers for over a year. This wasn’t my choice, and I still had hopes. In the last year, the Irish trade unionist had fallen away (too possessive), and the Hamburg artist had been tasted and dismissed (his art was minimalist, but he was a cluttered mess of needs and recriminations), and it was me, Manfred Schwartz, pushing open the bathroom door. Petra shook the newspaper at me. The pads of her fingers had softened from the water. Her short, wet hair lay flat against her face.
“Just listen to what this NATO general has done!”
Gone from her face was what I thought of as her scissors look—pinched and pale, stripped of humour. She started to hand me the newspaper, then grabbed it back and read out loud: “Commander of the 12th Panzer Division of the Bundeswehr!”
The gist was this: at a much-publicized Rifle Club banquet in Marbach the night before, a NATO general had made a scene. “A black-tie event! You can imagine! The women must have all been in long gloves, gowns covered in sequins. But here—listen. There’s a tradition in the club of bringing a massive roasted pig into the hall, a Spanferkel on a platter, with an apple in its mouth, while the military band strikes up a ceremonial march. Well, the military band chose to play the ‘Badenweiler Marsch.’”
She looked at me pointedly, and yes, I understood. This was Hitler’s march, played whenever he entered a public rally. This fact was well known to us, and it underlined, without further words, how fused the present Bonn elite was to the old system— ancient Nazis recycled and turned into judges and politicians. For non-Germans it might have been possible to listen to the “Badenweiler Marsch,” with its whistles of flutes and piccolos followed by the three distinctive horns, and not hear the darker resonance of Nazism, but not for people of my age, children of the Nazi generation.
Petra shook the paper straight and continued to read: “No sooner had the band struck up the tune, then General Emil Gerhardt, Commander, etcetera, etcetera, pushed back his chair, crossed the room and tapped the conductor on the shoulder. ‘I would prefer it,’ said the general, ‘if that particular march was not played. Neither here nor on any occasion.’”
I could picture it: the banqueting generals surrounded by their jewelled wives, the room fat with satisfaction; two men holding aloft the pig, basted in dark beer and with an apple in its mouth, a display of headcheese, pomegranates and roasted peaches around its haunches and cloven feet. A yelp of appreciation bursting from the grey beards in the room, and then this general requesting the conductor’s attention, while he glares in surprise and keeps waving his baton, and the tuba and the bassoonist begin, with mounting discord, to lose control of the music, until at last the whole thing founders with a final bleat of the trumpets. “I say,” says the general, “would it be possible for you to play another song?”
Petra dropped the paper on the floor and stood, sloshing water. “Pass me a towel, Manfred. I’m going to write him a letter.” She was dripping; little breasts so pretty, hip bones framing the dark patch of hair.
“No, you are not! That’s ridiculous.”
I handed her the towel and she began to dry herself vigorously. “He could be an important ally.”
“Yes, is that so? You know the mind of this general already?”
“I know he can’t help us, if that’s what you mean.”
I went back to the kitchen, where the stew had cooked down too much. Bits of potato and lamb were stuck to the frying pan. I poured in some wine, but the whole thing now had a slight burnt flavour.
Petra came in towelling her hair and wearing her customary loose pink sweatpants and a T-shirt—SWORDS INTO PLOUGHSHARES. She tossed the towel onto the back of a chair, went to her room and came back with a couple of postcards, one of Rosa Luxemburg, the other an innocuous vision of the Rhine in springtime. She chose the latter, sat down and scribbled quickly, then read aloud: “Dear General Gerhardt, I heard of your act of conscientious objection to call attention to Hitler’s odious march. Well done! If you have other values of this sort, come! Be part of our movement! Join the Green Party of West Germany! What do you think?”
I placed a bowl of stew in front of her. “It got burnt,” I said.
“It smells good.”
As I handed her a spoon, she took hold of my hand and kissed the back of it. “We need everyone,” she said.
“We must believe in human goodness—isn’t that our job, as people on this earth?”
“I don’t think so.”
“You’re angry with me,” she said.
“Why would I be?”
She was silent, chewing a piece of meat. “We need more allies from the centre.”
“A NATO general? Is that the centre?”
“And what? You will write him a postcard and tame him? Gentle the general?”
Watch out, I wanted to say. He’s old enough to be your father. She had a father thing; it was well known. She and I even occasionally laughed about it: her proclivity for older men. Her father had disappeared when she was five, without a word or note. He left her with a father-shaped gap in her chest, a place where the wind blew in, and a Pez container he’d bargained for in the American sector, shaped like Mickey Mouse.
Watch out for fathers, I wanted to say. But I didn’t.
2. Strangers from Another Time
This was West Germany, 1980. In other words, you couldn’t throw a stone on any university campus without hitting students who felt like they were carrying the ghosts of Auschwitz on their backs. And the silence of our parents’ generation, up on our backs, alongside the ghosts. They handed us their abominations without a word, in homes soaked with the good smells of apple pie cooling on the windowsills, happy times in front of the fire. They just forgot to mention the piles of bones, the whitened corpses buried in the backyard behind the trees, and we, detectives and prosecutors, had to dig them up ourselves.
What’s this, Daddy? Holding out a collarbone, a breastbone. I found it behind the shed.
A metaphor. But it felt like this, just under the skin of our daily lives.
At the Freie Universität Berlin in the late sixties, my friends and I had spent hours in mental agony: Who were these people, our parents? We knew them intimately and yet we feared them, and we distrusted ourselves, because we were their offspring.
But for Petra Kelly it was different. She’d moved to the States when she was twelve, after her mother married Commander Kelly, a US soldier, and stayed there until her mid-twenties. This long sojourn away protected her from the self-disgust. She was from the land of Coca-Cola, had campaigned for Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey and had marched on Washington for civil rights.
These things made her clean, made her attractive to our movement.
She didn’t have a Marxist bone in her body, and the politics of the sixty-eighters—the ardent politicized students of Germany, with our fury at the duplicity of our parents—was quite foreign to her.
We are all interconnected. This was what she loved to say, loved to think. And she’d quote from Gregory Bateson: “What pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all four of them to me?”
As for the use of force, she opposed it utterly, because (I hear her voice speaking) we all have a core of goodness in us. This is what she thought. Even the most unhallowed criminals. Even the man who sits in the pit of the missile silo with his finger flexed on the button. My Marxist self would take umbrage at her belief in human goodness. But him? Petra would say. Why, he’s just a child following orders!
And what about the man who gives the orders? I would ask her. And the man who gives the orders to the man who gives the orders? There they were, lined up like the chefs on my apron, one inside the other, and yes, according to Petra, they were all interconnected, and all redeemable.
The only real evil in this world came from reducing a person to the status of evil. That was what Petra Kelly thought.
Maybe you feel it too: a creeping sense that the world is going haywire. A darkness spreading across the horizon of our aspirations for our families, our communities, our world. An emerging dismay that possibilities for a good future, for ourselves and our kids, are ebbing away.
If so, your feelings are not without base; they do reflect a real shift in the state of our world. Accumulating scientific evidence and data show that key trendlines gauging humanity’s well-being—economic, social, political, and environmental—have indeed turned sharply downwards.
Just twenty years ago a feeling of exuberance still animated many societies. After the Soviet Union collapsed and before the war on terror, political, business, and intellectual leaders in the West declared that a fusion of capitalism, liberal democracy, and modern science would create a future of near-boundless possibility for all humanity. Now, humanity is at a perilous juncture. Problems like climate change, economic and social inequality, and the risk of nuclear war have become critical. In 2020, COVID-19 stopped the world at large in its tracks. International scientific agencies are issuing report after report declaring that a global environmental catastrophe is imminent, now probably far earlier than 2045, and maybe even as soon as a decade from now. Meanwhile, reason and scientific fact often seem impotent before entrenched vested interests, worsening social polarization, and rising political authoritarianism.
As our prospects seem to diminish by the day, some of us retreat inwards to focus on things close to us in time and space, such as our friends and family, in person and on social media. Others try denial, maybe by claiming that the evidence for problems such as climate change and even pandemics is invented by people who benefit from scaring us. Or, we become fatalistic, declaring we can’t do anything about the problems because we’ve gotten used to a way of living or because the problems are the fault of the rich, or the poor, or immigrants, minorities, or “them over there”—anybody but us. Some of us rally to authoritarian leaders who tell a simple story about what’s wrong and declare they can make things better with bold, harsh action.
Anxiety about the future, detachment, self-deception, and feelings of resentment and helplessness—this is a perilous psychological state—the starting line of a fast track to the end of hope. It also makes the future we fear far more likely to happen, because the best way to ensure we’ll fail to solve our problems is to believe we can’t.
We all know—whether explicitly or unconsciously—that to escape this trap we need to come up with promising ideas to address the critical problems humanity faces. But to do so, we need to understand what’s causing the problems in the first place. As any medical doctor would say, good prescription depends on good diagnosis. To that end, over the last forty years I’ve studied humankind’s global challenges closely, particularly worsening economic insecurity, climate change, pandemics, scarcities of critical resources like fresh water and clean energy, weak and incompetent governance, and the factors that keep our societies from innovating effectively to address such problems. I’ve also studied how these challenges can combine to multiply their total impact, with cascading consequences that sometimes lead to mass violence, including terrorism, genocide, and war.
As a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1980s, I helped found a research group of young natural scientists, lawyers, and social scientists at MIT, Harvard, and other nearby universities interested in the implications of Earth’s environmental crisis. Our work together was exhilarating—we were all hopeful that science, international goodwill, and basic common sense would prevent humanity from tumbling into an environmental disaster. Today, we’re dispersed all over the world; and with a planetary environmental disaster now unfolding in real time, we remain connected with each other to share information, ideas, and research findings.
Alas, the underlying causes of humanity’s problems aren’t easy to diagnose, and some of the world’s best minds have struggled for decades to figure out what’s going on. Ever since those university years, I’ve followed their research and expert debates with fascination, and my books The Ingenuity Gap (2000) and The Upside of Down (2006) drew on that work to provide a framework for my own research and diagnoses.2 I didn’t pull any punches in my assessment of the dangers, so I was often labeled a “doom-meister.” But as the years have passed, my analysis in those books has (unfortunately) turned out to be close to the mark, and the profound gravity of humanity’s predicament is now hard to miss and broadly acknowledged.
I’ve always intended this third book to move beyond diagnosis to explore what we can do to get through the gloom and reach a new light. I start from the assumption that this is a time for honesty about the challenges we face and about our need for immediate, courageous responses. It’s now vividly apparent to me and my scientific colleagues, to many members of the world’s Indigenous cultures, to socially progressive groups everywhere, to the clear-eyed youth who in 2019 protested for climate action in the streets of more than a hundred countries, and to the countless families and communities worldwide devastated by the psychological and economic trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic the following year, that humanity is marching down a path towards calamity. To find a route to a far better outcome, we must marshal our amazing ability to overcome new challenges—an ability we’ve honed since the first hominid climbed down from the trees and set out across the savannah.
In the following chapters, I draw on insights from history, psychology, physics, philosophy, economics, politics, and art to identify such an alternative route that’s informed by honest realism—one that leads us towards a future of broadly shared opportunity, security, justice, and identity. I also provide some practical scientific tools that we can use to take our first steps together along this radically new path.
I argue that at this crucial moment in humanity’s history, three changes are essential to keep us from descending into intractable, savage violence.
First, we need individually to better understand how and why we see the world the way we do and what makes other people’s views sometimes so different from ours. Second, instead of passively accepting a dystopian image of what will come tomorrow, we need to actively create together from our diverse perspectives a shared story of a positive future—including a shared identity as “we”—that will help us address our common problems and thrive. And, finally, we need to fully mobilize our extraordinary human agency to produce that future.
Each of these changes requires that we have hope. To believe in the possible and to make the possible real, we must recognize that the right kind of hope can be a tool of change, and we must give our hope the muscle it requires in our present crisis.
Unfortunately, though, hope has seen better days. Barely more than a decade ago, Barack Obama could speak unabashedly of the “audacity of hope” in his presidential campaign, and his idea was a powerfully motivating psychological and social force in the world. And over the last fifteen years, eminent thinkers and social scientists have called for “radical hope,” “active hope,” and “intrinsic hope.” But despite these vital efforts to rejuvenate the idea, many of us have come to regard hope with disdain—as a state of mind that’s naïve and irresolute at best, delusional at worst.
Yet if we’re to survive, let alone see our children prosper in this century and beyond, we need a potently motivating principle that’s honest about the gravity of the dangers we face and about the personal responsibility each and every one of us has to face those dangers; that’s astute about the strategies we can use to overcome those dangers, given the viewpoints, values, and goals of people around us; and that’s powerful because it galvanizes our agency, our capacity to discern our most promising paths forward and choose among them. We need, in other words, the kind of hope that has motivated millions of young climate activists to sit outside parliament houses and block business-as-usual traffic in capital cities worldwide and that has galvanized communities and nations around Earth to slow the coronavirus pandemic.
In Dante’s fourteenth-century epic poem The Divine Comedy, the entrance to Hell famously carries the inscription: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” The phrase has become watered down over time, almost trite. But facing a future that promises to be hell for countless people, our task in the twenty-first century is to rediscover the power of the uniquely human ability to hope—an ability to envision and strive towards a positive future that’s an alternative to whatever challenging or even unbearable present we’re living in.
I propose in the pages that follow a way of mobilizing hope’s immense psychological power, as people have done in times of great stress before and can do again. What I call commanding hope is grounded in historical and scientific knowledge of how hope works at every level—in our lives as individual human beings and in our societies too. Today, confronting challenges so large that all too often we feel unable to move, we need it more than ever.
There are no guarantees of success. The perils are real, and the chances we’ll prevail may be small. But we face a choice between denying reality, running from the crisis, or facing that crisis head on to fight for a far better future. I’ve written this book for all of us—community activists, parents and grandparents, students and teachers, business and religious leaders, farmers and builders, scientists and engineers, nurses and doctors, restaurant and shop owners and artists, politicians and voters—all of us who choose to fight.
And it’s dedicated to my children, Ben and Kate, and through them to all the children who remind us every day how to use our imaginations to tell our own story, and to see and seek the world we want.
This is not another book about climate science. It takes the urgent science and the impacts of climate breakdown as a given. It is a book about politics, history and policy innovation. More specifically, it’s a book about what it takes to align our politics with the imperative the science demands of us. It takes as inspiration Canada’s Second World War experience and also draws encouragement from other countries that, are starting to treat this crisis as the emergency that it is.
Effectively tackling the climate crisis is not a technical or policy problem – we know what is needed to transition to a zero-carbon society, and the technology needed is largely ready to go. Rather, the challenge we face is a political one. Climate solutions persistently encounter a political wall; the prevailing assumption within the leadership of our political parties appears to be that if our political leaders were to articulate (let alone undertake) what the climate science tells us is necessary, it would be political suicide. And so they don’t.
This book explores whether we can successfully align our politics with climate science, and the conditions under which it may be possible to pursue a bold policy plan that is well-received by Canadians. It outlines what a meaningful and hopeful climate program can look like and makes the case for why our political leaders should embrace this generational mission.
Like many of you, I’m afraid. In particular, I feel deep anxiety for my children, and the state of the world we are leaving to those who will live after us. The simple truth is that we don’t know if we will rise to this challenge in time. But it is worth appreciating that those who rallied in the face of fascism 80 years didn’t know if they would win either. We forget that there was a good chunk of the war during which the outcome was far from certain. Yet that generation rallied regardless, and in the process, surprised themselves with what they were capable of achieving. That’s the spirit we need today.
Chapter One: Social Media Is Surveillance Capitalism. The economic model of social media is organized around personal data surveillance.
Chapter Two: Social Media Are Addiction Machines. The science of targeted advertising and the “engineering of consent” at the heart of social media.
Chapter Three: Social Media Propels Authoritarian Practices. The rise and spread of authoritarian practices worldwide.
Chapter Four: Social Media Is Environmentally Destructive. The negative environmental impacts associated with social media, from electronic mining to energy consumption to cloud computing’s contributions to CO2 emissions (which now exceeds that of the airline industry) to the growing problem of electronic waste.
Chapter Five: What Is to Be Done? A comprehensive strategy of long-term reform is required, extending from the personal to the political, from the local to the global. We need to imagine a better world and start making it happen before it is too late.
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