Thursday, February 13, 2014

‘Leavenworth,’ a new essay, published in Rathalla Review

The current issue of Rathalla Review includes an essay entitled “Leavenworth” from my current work-in-progress, Losing Francis: One Family’s Journey through a Decade of American War.

Here is a brief excerpt: 

The Nootka Indians of the Pacific Northwest believe four generations of peace have to pass before a people who’ve gone to war will regain their sanity. If that required peace-time compounds like interest for successive generations at war, America may be waiting a long time indeed for sanity to return. Wandering among the headstones, you can’t help but notice that war or its shadow has been part of every generation. 

Read the full essay here (beginning on page 31): “Leavenworth” 

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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Eco-band Soular takes back the tradition of musical activism in its debut album, ‘Take It Back’

Take It Back: A (mildly desultory) Review-Essay
By Bob Sommer

“… if we’re looking around for someone else to get on the job we might just look over our shoulders and find we’re looking into a mirror at our own sorry selves.”

So it’s a bunch of tree-huggers all squeezed into my then thirteen-year-old Jeep. It’s a year ago and we’re headed west on I-70 for a Sierra Club meeting in Topeka on a cool Saturday morning. Outside Kansas rolls by with the sun behind us, still low on the horizon, throwing splintery shadows across fields of corn stubble. In back one tree-hugger reads the newspaper. Up front sit me and Craig Wolfe, who wanted to sit up front because he’s a big guy and the seats in back are tight and our friend didn’t care who sat up front or in back, so Craig’s up front.
Click the image to visit Soular online
We’re talking. I’m asking about his music. Back in THE DAY—which for both of us is the sixties and seventies, THE DAY, that is, before the music died for a decade while machine-generated pop insanity called disco throbbed and shook most of our brains into all manner of weirdness, like believing “greed is good,” solar panels on the White House are bad, and big hair is beautiful, so forth, so THE DAY was the metonymic day before all that—and, to complete the sentence, back then Wolfe was a rock ’n roller. He played in a band called Amdahl Wolfe, doing gigs four-five nights a week all over Kansas City and beyond. It was THE DAY.

But THE DAY passed and then came life, and Wolfe got into the construction business, building passive solar houses and doing other tree-hugger stuff, including plunging into the Sierra Club in Kansas in a big way. I’ve known him for seven-eight years now. I do tree-hugger stuff too. We’re all about averting mankind from his/her/our collective manic suicidal race into annihilation as we gobble up every square foot of land, spew the black goo that used be dinosaurs and 250-million-year-old trees into the air and water, and basically torture ourselves with rage for more and more and more STUFF.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Kansas Supreme Court denies Holcomb II coal-fired plant

Topeka, Kan. - In a decision that will protect public health and ratepayers, the Kansas Supreme Court today invalidated the air pollution permit granted to Sunflower Electric Power Corp. by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment in 2010. The permit must be reconsidered by KDHE and all current air pollution regulations must be applied. With new standards in effect since the project was first proposed, the outlook of the expansion plant legally meeting those standards or finding financial backing for unneeded coal-fired generation is dim.

“The proposed Holcomb coal plant is now a fading mirage on the plains,” said Holly Bender, Deputy Director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaign. “As states embrace renewable energy and utilities are locking in contracts for clean energy at record low prices, there just isn't a need for the dirty, expensive energy that Sunflower Electric is looking to sell.”

The proposed coal plant, also known as Holcomb II, was the most intensely contested coal plant in Kansas history, as well as one of the most controversial permits ever considered by KDHE. If built, the new plant would release thousands of pounds of toxic pollution in Kansas while the power it generates would belong to Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, a Colorado-based utility.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Protect Public Lands from Reckless Fracking

Protect Public Lands from Reckless Fracking? Yes We Can!
Michael Brune

By Michael Brune, Sierra Club Executive Director

One of the worst consequences of President Obama's reckless all of the above" energy policy is the blight of oil and gas rigs that has spread across our public lands -- often right next to national parks and wilderness areas. Based on my own family's camping trip this summer, I can testify that the sight of natural gas flares in the night sky adds nothing to the wilderness experience.
What's more, most of this new drilling is hydraulic fracturing (fracking), which is so dangerous, destructive, and polluting that there's no reason why any additional public lands should be leased to drillers. Air-polluting gas flares are bad enough -- running the risk of contaminating the water table of a national park is unthinkable.

"All of the above" also ignores the fact that, if we want to limit climate disruption from fossil fuels, we need a policy that leaves most of them below the ground.

Nevertheless, all summer long the Bureau of Land Management has been accepting public comments on a proposed update of federal regulations for oil and gas fracking on the public lands it manages. Presumably that's an attempt to honor a pledge President Obama made in his 2012 State of the Union address -- that America would develop resources like natural gas "without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk."

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Michael Brune: Earth "a paper-thin shield between life and the dark void of space"

The Overview Effect
Michael Brune
By Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club 

Few of us will ever venture past the 60-mile boundary that separates Earth and outer space. If you do, though, you're likely to experience something known as "the overview effect" -- a cognitive shift in how you perceive our planet. Political boundaries disappear, and our atmosphere, which seemed like a boundless expanse of blue from the ground, is suddenly revealed to be a paper-thin shield between life and the dark void of space.

Last week, the fragility of that thin blue shield was underscored by the news that we've
reached a daily average of 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. That's the highest level in at least 3 million years. In less than two centuries, we've increased atmospheric CO2 by 42 percent -- by burning fossil fuels, degrading our forests, and disturbing our soils. And it's still going up.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

‘Kodak Elegy’: A Portrait of Everyman for Boomers

Kodak Elegy: A Portrait of Everyman for Boomers
By Bob Sommer
Click the image
for the publisher's website

Full disclosure up front: I’m a native New Yorker and grew up in a Hudson Valley neighborhood quite like the Rochester suburb William Merrill Decker describes in Kodak Elegy: A Cold War Childhood (Syracuse Univ. Press, 2012). Also by way of disclosure, I’ve known Bill for over twenty-five years, so I’m not impartial, but then if I thought less of this marvelous book I’d follow my mother’s advice and not say anything at all.

This memoir undertakes a daunting challenge: turning the potentially numbing story of a baby boomer’s middle-class suburban childhood into a meaningful narrative. Bill Decker grew up in the relative comfort of a white suburb, insulated from urban decay and financial stress, within an Ozzie-and-Harriet-like nuclear family, with mother at home and father a rising executive in a Fortune 500 company (Eastman Kodak). As a child he explored construction sites in his neighborhood and took well-orchestrated family trips downtown to the dentist and to shop for clothes. He is not someone whose name is known to most general readers, so unlike a statesman or sports celebrity, for whom every detail of life must have significance relative to their fame and achievements, Bill has ventured into territory with great potential for drabness. Yet by pealing away the veneer of middle class life in the age of Madmen, Kodak Elegy leaps a considerable hurdle and rewards readers with a compelling narrative and significant literary achievement.

Kodak Elegy is at once a cultural and regional history and the story of a generation. Rochester becomes an emblem for the rise of suburbs all over the country and the correspondent decline of mid-size cities that were once hubs of a region’s economy and social life. The expansion of highways and growth of suburban shopping plazas and bedroom communities decentered American society, revealing stark contrasts of economic and racial disparity beneath the serene appearance of prosperity. Bill traces the intricacies of that life, with its satisfactions and compulsions, though not insensitive to the powerful impetus of its own feedback loop: “And there were we, caught in the demographics of our time and class, swept into patterns of consumption and desire hard to distinguish…from our neighbors.”

Kodak Elegy succeeds because it is tightly focused on the region and culture of Bill’s childhood. He is a fine observer, and his prose has many exquisite moments. Here he describes what was for me a familiar memory of neighborhood exploration: “Like most children of the suburban frontier we conceived a fascination for shadow worlds: hidden meadows containing junked cars, weedy lengths of seldom-used rail line, causeways harboring limestone ruins of Erie Canal masonry.” From my own childhood I might substitute the abandoned farmhouses and stretches of woods just beyond the perimeter of our neighborhood that seemed to belong to no one and perhaps invoked a primal sense of wooded and open commons that is now just a vestige of another life. Such was the innocence of childhood to know nothing of real estate development and platting maps.

Of the contrast between suburbs and city, Bill writes: “In summer, the suburbs gave off a scent of fresh paint and pines, varied by what flowers happened to be in bloom. The city by contrast had a smell of partially rotted things. Rather than repulsive the smell was intriguing; the very history of the place exhaled it.”

Kodak Elegy is a story in which many share. Nostalgic without becoming sentimental, descriptive without becoming tiresome, well-designed and finely written, it is the story of a generation whose impact on history and culture has yet to be fully measured.