Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Greater Expectations

Some of you may know that my family and I recently took up residence in Massachusetts. Left far behind us are cheap burrito lunches, supermarket liquors and the occasional San Andreas tremor. Now our landscape is filled with maples and apple farms that surround our little Cape Cod style house. It's spring here in New England, bursting with blossoms and young leaves. For every large lawn, there seems to be a cardinal on its periphery who is a sentinel to the grass and sky.

Certainly, life here is different. We expected that. But not just because we're Californians transplanted in New England. We also crossed what might arguably be a more precipitous border that crisscrosses many American landscapes. Some forty miles inland from the metropolis, we have planted ourselves in a kind of 'sub-suburban' world that borders on being rural. But not quite rural, no. Among the apple farms and around the Town Forest are homes, some quite palatial. This isn't quite rural, not with tractor mowers, Trader Joe's and Talbots just a few miles away.

Not only is New England novel to us, but so is this newly-defined pastoral life that we now have here. Certainly, this kind of existence is not unique to New England. There is a kind of urge for the pastoral life that is satisfied far beyond the fringes of city life. It can be found across the country. It can be soothing, where one might fantasize about reading Byron all day in a shaded hammock and leaving the trappings of civilization behind, to fester in its own self-perpetuated demise.

On Saturdays -- now that Spring is in full throttle -- I've noted the din of the John Deeres all around me. The summer gear is making its way out of the garages. Hedges are getting trimmed, lawns groomed, flowers planted, and volleyball nets are rising. Commercial vans pull up to large lawns and 'hydroseed' them with high-pressure hoses that blast out a greenish mix of grass seed and fertilizer. Bird fountains are swept out and turned on. The energy that is put into the yards that surround these clapboard castles is astonishing. Being the new, first time home owner, I see the frenzy of yard activity around us and look at my own lawn with a sigh. "Look how brown our grass is," I tell my wife. "What a lot of work this is."

Naturally I can't help but be myself. So instead of watering and 'hydroseeding' my anemic lawn, I sit on my deck gazing out at the neighbor who is plodding along at five miles an hour, sitting resplendently on his green John Deere, coffee in hand. It's perhaps 11:00 in the morning, and I'm onto my second Bass Ale. His lawn must be about two acres. His house -- though quite nice, and very tidy -- must be about 3,500 square feet. His driveway must be a couple hundred feet long, as it winds up the slight hill his house sits upon. And I am amazed.

Amazed, and nervous. I bought the smallest house in this neighborhood -- though palatial compared to what we rented in California -- because I couldn't fathom taking care of too much property. And because I think there's some big challenges ahead for us in the not too distant future, mostly to do with energy. A career opportunity took me to New England, where energy really, really matters. In California, you can get away with not heating your house in the winter. It'd be very uncomfortable, and not much of a life without heat. But you'd survive. In New England, turning off the heat would simply kill you. Energy is imperative. And so it concerns me that I now live somewhere that is energy-intensive, in an era at the threshold of an energy crisis.

After two or three Bass Ales, I wax poetic on my deck. And I wonder: does Mr. John Deere over there with his coffee see what's coming down the pike? Is it really possible that his carefully constructed domestic universe that's buffered by tall maples is on the brink of extinction? On the surface, it's so lovely, all of this. It's so simple and fresh. Grass with romping children and lots of trees and space, with redbirds flitting across the sky. People trim-out their domestic fantasies with hedge clippers purchased from Home Depot and made in China. Every house has a wooden castle for children in the back yard with slides, swings and dealybobs they can amuse themselves with. Propane-fueled mosquito lures bracket the yards. Is all of this truly sustainable? Are we kidding ourselves that this is normal? Is this realistic?

Beer is supposed to suppress thoughts about the apocalypse and lure one into the complacency of numbness. Or some such. But not this Bass Ale. Each passing day has me more convinced that our lives are carefully constructed fantasies, scripted in the last 60 years or so. Our fantastic expectations on how to live well are built upon the assumption that energy will be abundant, and cheap. But we are fragile and exposed. Many people don't know it. They see themselves as hard workers who paid their dues, and their John Deere was fairly earned. Perhaps so, in the context of our culture's expectations. But should the basic relationship we have with energy be disrupted, much of this paradise around my house will be changed.

Today, Iran's leader sent a letter to the President, lecturing him on democracy and religion. He all but demanded that the American president convert to Islam.

It was hardly a letter that approached reconciliation, or laid a foundation for setting terms that might reduce tensions. The letter was bravado, and I believe it was the observance of an Islamic a technicality -- da’wa, a call to accept Islam offered to one's enemies before war. It's a foreboding letter that might mean many things, coming from a country that can easily destabilize the cost of energy for the world.

I really don't know how this crisis can or should play out. But however it works out, much of what we consider normal will probably not endure. It wouldn't be so tragic if all that was at stake was mowed grass and palatial living. I think we might come to be surprised to learn how many of our goals and dreams for the good life are tied into energy from places that have values that are far different than our own. We will need to adjust our values to greater expectations that might be more realistic, if not more wholesome.

Last beer. I hear it rains here a lot in the summer. That's good. That should keep my grass green. I'm looking into a push mower, but heaven help me in this era of change. The neighbors will think I'm crazy.