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Dreams, Memories, Stories

The same dream comes to me every night. It always starts in the lobby of One Shell Square in New Orleans. Once the large grinning security guard lets us through the turnstiles, we wait for the elevator. Inside the enclosed space, a dozen of us turn into seven and then a handful and then it’s just me, not knowing which floor to get off on. Each night, the elevator doors open to a different floor: 18, 33, 29 and place me in a donut of offices. Familiar voices in the distance, I walk (sometimes rollerblade, sometimes segway) to them, and they move farther and farther away. I reach my office, in reality threadbare and precise, but in my dreams packed full of computers, books, papers, rocks, pillows, a cot, food, plants (plants?) and every sign that I live there. I walk to the window and look outside. It is already night and outside is Houston, Singapore, Mexico City, Beijing. I hear the call of a colleague and … wake up.

The same dream comes to me every night. Or do I go to it?

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Back in reality, it is Day 7 of Self-Isolation. I’ve upped my daily indoor cycling routine to 30 minutes from the normal 20, thanks to my increasingly cooperative left knee. I think of the aging and elderly suffering from or fearful of contracting COVID; their 99 problems and then this, the slowing down but having to cope quickly, the indignity and helplessness of it all. I think of my own severely immunocompromised mother who has two loving, knowledgeable and diligent caregivers and access to world-class healthcare but is still as susceptible as the next person and more isolated than ever. I think back on what this body has experienced in the last decade. It reminds me of the family friend who suffered a painful miscarriage on the banks of the Euphrates while fleeing Kuwait. And the neighbor who lost all of her frozen embryos during the flood of New Orleans. Memories, stories. I wonder what if these people had had cellphones and social media, rapid rescue and more robust storage. Wait. What if we bring the world to a point where no one has to experience much of this ever again? What if the world is not in stagnation or on the road to irreversible deterioration? My intention for us is not to overcome COVID and crisis du jour, but to live, bear witness, learn, record, remember, change, vote and act in ways that ensure we don’t make the same mistakes over and over again.

That we don’t get off the elevator onto another but same circular floor every night and get stuck there until out of REM sleep.

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Our nascent book club is reading Ling Ma’s Severance: A Novel, about a handful of American survivors on a fictional Earth broken by a fungal pandemic. (As much as I write openly, reading remains a severely intimate act for me and given a history of rapid exits from prior book clubs, we’ll see). More than a description of yet another dystopian world, the book so far is an exploration of inner life, especially of memory and stories. The protagonist’s memories, her people’s memories, the author’s memories, other memories, other’s memories. Stories. Dreams.

Memories beget memories. Shen Fever being a disease of remembering, the fevered are trapped indefinitely in their memories. But what is the difference between the fevered and us? Because I remember too, I remember perfectly. My memories replay, unprompted, on repeat. And our days, like theirs, continue in an infinite loop. We drive, we sleep, we drive some more.

The past is a black hole, cut into the present day like a wound, and if you come too close, you can get sucked in. You have to keep moving.

The past. Memories. The present. Stories and a conduit. The future. A dream. They all exist. What we do with them will make for better memories, stories, dreams.

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The Truth Of The Moment

You are human. Your feelings are valid. Your emotional and rational takes on any given situation exist simultaneously, so by all means, go ahead. Allow yourself to have those feelings, sit with them and explore their shapes, no matter how different your circumstance, culture and society advise. As long as you don’t drop into that other space. The one of prolonged self-pity and inadequacy. Catch yourself before you fall into the abyss.

Mini-me’s life so far has been book ended by the 9/11/2001 attacks and COVID-19. Think of the times in which the girl grew up. She was a naive yet sensitive 7 when Katrina happened. Today, her graduation from a small and tight-knit liberal arts school was officially cancelled. Domingo and I feel for her given how much she cherishes that community and home of the last four years. Closure was never promised to any of us and my family knows this better than most. Still, it’s not necessarily a lesson you imagine or want the next generation learning in a sudden and hard way. Plenty of time for that down the road. But, there she is, helping her school, running online classes, and making sure her education and that of her classmates keep chugging. Domingo noted that the cheerful way in which she deals with difficult people and circumstances will help her go far. Yup, in that sense, our family sure did save the best for last.

Living in the American South and Katrina taught me that not everyone experiences anything the same way, especially tragedy which becomes untold history. Bearing witness is a responsibility, then. There have to be multiple histories and tellings because there is no way one history represents all.

Write it down. Keep a diary. Do what I did during Katrina, even if it seems pointless. Because it isn’t.

This [project] will, of course, not be routine writing and composing. That’s the point. There is much that all of us and each of us have already experienced in the past few weeks that is shocking, unexpected, unpredictable, unknowable, new; much that we have not felt before and not seen. What is it like to live today knowing that we do not know what tomorrow and the day after will bring?

“I hope that when they have taken this course and others, they have become imbued with the idea that they are citizens.”

Me: I’m a live-in-the-moment kind of person.
Mini-me (simultaneously): It’s the truth of the moment.
Me: Word.

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Day 4 of the quarantine. Thanks to modern videoconferencing technology (however buggy and lossy), we maintain distancing but not separation. What a luxury to continue to work and do science while not in the office. It does make you wonder, though, how much companies spend on office building rents and equipment that could be reinvested in communications technology and co-working spaces for coming together only when necessary. Reading: The History of Office Design

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Today I show you the cover of a beautiful book and ask you to help friend, former King of Krewe du Vieux, and New Orleans resident Ronald Lewis by purchasing it HERE. Mr. Ronald lost so much during Hurricane Katrina and The Flood but rallied Mardi Gras Indians, musicians and activists to build and maintain The House of Dance and Feathers, a museum and cultural center in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans that preserves and celebrates the city’s Mardi Gras Social Aid, Pleasure Club, and Indian culture. And now he is is in the hospital for a respiratory infection, which may or may not turn out to be COVID.

Here’s more from his friend and collaborator Tom Harvey:

Dear all, We have just found out that one of our long-term partners, Ronald W. Lewis, the director of the House of Dance & Feathers, is in the hospital with a respiratory infection. He has been tested for COVID-19 but the results are not back, but is in quarantine for at least another week. One of the main ways that Ronald supports his museum and day-to-day expenses is through the sale of the book that we created together … it is a community history and art book about the Lower Ninth Ward, Mardi Gras Indians, and Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs. Please consider purchasing a copy at the link below so that he does not lose income while he is not able to be at the museum, and please stay safe out there.

UPDATE: Mr. Ronald passed earlier this week. It was not due to COVID, he had been in bad health for a while. If you are considering buying the book, please still do so as it will help his family defray medical and funeral costs at this difficult time. Rest in power.

Dealing with new challenges while still overcoming previous ones cannot be easy. Please help if you can.

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The door of my high school locker had a magazine ad pasted on it. Orange background, a minimalist plastic chair and the words SEE YOU IN 2020. It was 1992, the internet was coming alive, I was learning to write email in vi and had just discovered Project Gutenberg, and the future was going to be connected, accessible and superb. So why wasn’t my Generation X happy in the early 1990s? Why did we innately not buy the promises of the future, as we simultaneously built one? It’s probably a combination of the confident optimism of youth and that not many of us thought 2020 would come. Surely, our parents would wipe the planet off the face of the solar system by 2000.

Not only are we in 2020,, it is neither the dystopian Sprawl imagined by the likes of Gibson and Stephenson nor is it a better and braver place. It’s an altogether different thing held together by the unimaginable events of the last 30 years, but one we would have seen coming had we heeded the words of those who warned against the increasing privatization of the commons, power gathered and wielded by fewer and fewer, modernized but not eradicated colonialism, global absorption of bad western habits, and the resultant lack of leadership and vision when we need it the most.

When I re-christened this blog From Kuwait To Katrina And Beyond in 2006, little did I think yonder would be a virus-related pandemic. At some point, I joked that “two data points do constitute a trend for large values of each datum. After losing one home permanently to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait of 1990 and temporarily losing another to Katrina in 2005, I am going to build my home into an underground bunker and march in there in 2020.” Welcome to America, COVID-19. Are you going to question my trend game now? Terrible and anecdotal correlations aside, it is a bit eerie that we are now in a quarantine likely headed into a lockdown with a large number of Americans in zombie-apocalypse mode. And there’s no disaster so bad that can’t be made worse through fear, panic, denial and the lack of reliable, actionable information.

Few people read this long-form medium and particularly this space any longer and I admit to growing large audiences on social media sites I don’t own (again with that Why Do We Build It As We Resent It?). So, I took to Facebook today to share a thoughtful piece by Radio Open Source: COVID-19 and Incompetence with the following preface.

As this virus passes through, my hope is that Americans become more reliant on science, data and reason, and less on magical thinking. Prayer is personal and a great source of calm, but prayer as policy is dangerous and will only make us sicker. I enjoyed this Radio Open Source podcast. May it get us all thinking about educated, informed and strong public health.

Facebook informed me a few hours later that this post violated their community standards against spam. How I can spam my own feed is beyond me, but what I find more annoying is that Facebook wrongly blocked legitimate CV-19 websites because of a bug in their spam filter. All of the post-Katrina, post-Flood, post-Macondo, during-Trump frustration with the disruption of valuable discourse, when we need it the most, came rushing back. Yet again and at least, this is my space where I can post all of the information and thoughts I want in the order that I want and in the medium and format that I want without interruption by ads. (Another prediction I made about the emergence of our AI overlords by 2020 has been proven wrong.)

So, it’s March 17th 2020 – St. Patrick’s Day and Day 2 of the Houston-wide mandate to socially distance, work from home as much as possible, and help the city flatten the curve. Houston is a globally-revered medical mecca, but “Texas has about 2.9 hospital beds per 1,000 people — less than one-fourth the rate of South Korea.” We are also at the mercy of our failure to prepare as a nation, which is already taking its toll. On the plus side, no in-person work meetings that could have been emails, virtually chatting and reading books with friends to stave off cabin fever, and, man, my home office has never been cleaner.

If blogs are not your thing, find me on Twitter and Instagram (see sidebar). Slightly different styles of updates at each place, but the message remains the same – Peace, love and hand sanitizer. Stay informed. Stay well. Stay.

And help me increase the signal to noise ratio by leaving comments anywhere and everywhere with numbers and links.

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[Disclaimer: Bina Venkataraman is a close relative and, in my opinion, an excellent science journalist.]

It is no coincidence that The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age came out a) just as I have begun giving talks about the future of geoscience and its applications in a world powered by more than fossil fuels, and b) at the same time as the formation of a Society of Exploration Geophysicists strategy group dedicated to innovation in capabilities and opportunities for early-career applied geophysicists. The new normal of volatile economies, demographic changes, increasing globalization, climate change and shifting priorities in governance obviously have many more than future-focused geoscientists like me concerned. And not just for ourselves but also and especially for those to whom we leave this world. What will our legacy be? Leaving problems for the kids to work out or searching for and starting solutions?

My talks vary according to the audience, but adhere to and are constructed around the three main components of the future: People, Practice, and Philosophy. First come the People. Who’s We? Who are the individuals and societies we consider in our collective future? Next, Practice. What tools do we have, and which ones need creating? How and why are they used? Finally, Philosophy. Are we mentally and emotionally mature and philosophically capable to talk about the future? Can we change? The philosophy of the futurist must involve an acknowledgement of human interdependencies as well as deep introspection and more open conversation, and is what Optimist’s Telescope opens with. Bina cites the contemplation of human myopia by early Western philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato to modern psychologists: Why this bias for the present when we know it is fleeting and is the future’s past? In truth, thinking about the future isn’t even that profound or ponderous for, as the book says early on, “What appears our doomed fate is, in reality, a choice.” Help yourself and others make good choices that will help us all down the road. Even when boiled down to this simple, accessible problem, the question remains: Can we change?

Yes, we can change, Bina argues, because we have. As I sit in an industry founded on long-term vision but is increasingly funded by impatient stockholders and constrained by their attendant quarterly demands, I read tales of finance houses that gave up short-term earnings statements and annual bonuses as measures of success. I learn of fishermen who curbed their unnecessary practice of resource over-extraction and instead put a plan in place to grow sustainable populations for the future. And I smile at cities that have banned urban development and suburban sprawl hastily constructed on flood plains, subsidence zones and natural coastal barriers. Beyond provoking thought, it is in each chapter being a concrete example of an implementable solution, sustainable practice or failure analysis where The Optimist’s Telescope excels. Furthermore, Bina’s reporting skills helped her put together each of these examples as case studies but first as stories. Empathizing with the story and people of the matter and to the tick of the long clock versus embracing or rejecting it with respect to momentary political ideology may be a better way of enacting longer-lasting and much-needed change. 

New problems need new solutions but there is also wisdom to be had from histories and cultures we refuse to consider in our increasingly “global” scape. Bina goes into this in some detail with takeaways that we can use today and in our seemingly varied communities. We in the 21st-century west are not smarter than ancient Pompeiians or more advanced than the inhabitants of rural Cameroon. In fact, hiding our primitive and failing institutional practices behind the veneer of flashy technology, language-bending buzzwords and crisp suits is so much worse.

Overall, The Optimist’s Telescope is a well-researched and practical yet impassioned plea for a futures-based approach to solving the problem of our continued co-existence on this planet. As I imagine geoscience curricula for schools and universities, we must start with what needs addressing before we routinely pick items for students’ toolbelts. I greatly recommend this book or select chapters to accompany science, philosophy and science communication classes at all levels of education so that it may help students in creating their own future, asking the right questions on its behalf, and designing their own tools to make that future real and good. And, speaking of growing respect for delayed gratification, I can’t wait for the sequel to this book containing more stories and visions of the future.

Further Reading

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