Monthly Archives: April 2014

A conversation with my uncle

A Conversation With My Uncle

“So, John… who was right?”, my uncle asked.

My uncle.   That question again. And the pestering. Good grief.   What a character. He went to school for a long time, “back in the day,” as he’d like to say, and had lots of books upstairs that showed it.   He lived in the small workshop/distillery we had here in Ticonderoga, next to the main house.   My family loved him, but it was good he had his own small place outside the main house.   Just close enough to keep an eye on me and my sister when needed when we were younger, but far enough as to not drive my own parents crazy.

Originally a guest house, the place evolved to something between a one bedroom apartment and library for him upstairs, and a distillery/workshop downstairs, with an old garage door that opened in the front during the summer, as well as some back room storage.   The main house was where most of our living happened, but the old guest house was where the working happened.   We were close enough to the center of town that we even got some electricity, but for the most part, we didn’t need much.   We also had a few old solar panels to run a transceiver, keep a few lights on, and charge the emergency screamer, but for the most part, we lived without it. It wasn’t like the old days, that’s for sure.

When he was in a jovial mood, it would be great to hang out with my uncle in our tiny distillery. With the solar stills going, we did a good business in distilling higher end stuff for the local taverns, making things for medicinal purposes, working with basic fats and oils, and a host of other things that needed distilling, some basic chemistry, or processing with heat.   My uncle called it all “applied heat transfer,” with a laugh. Wood could be used, yeah, but when the sun was shining, it was free energy. The less we had to work chopping wood, the better.    It wasn’t hard to build a solar still, but getting the time and temperatures right took some doing.

A good portion of the summertime, however, my uncle spent his days near the rebuilt hydrostation a short walk only a few miles away, at the center of Ti, where most of the workshops that needed power existed.   My uncle called it a “real” maker space (as if there was any other kind?).   I spent a good amount of time there too in my impressionable youth, and picked up a good bit of know-how in my teens and early twenties from the rest of the craftsmen there.

This winter though, most of us were holed up in the main house, and occasionally I’d draw the short straw to walk the few yards under the old connecting open porch between the main house and the workshop to check on him. He’d go there to read or write, or to work on some small project that only needed a miniscule bit of power, repairing things that couldn’t be moved to the main shops in town.   Only through sheer luck did the tilt of the roof of both main buildings on our small lot face due south, and as a result, retrofitting them for solar heating wasn’t too difficult.

Again, he asked, “Who was right?”

On the shelf, there they were, in all their alphabetic glory. Baker. Bartlett. Foss. Greer. Heinberg. Holmgren. Jensen. Kunstler. Even Malthus! Martenson. McPherson. Orlov. Ruppert. Simmons. Tainter. All the others, great and small; the ‘collapsniks’ of the previous century.     All of them had a vision of the future. All of which my uncle had neatly cataloged, up in his library, along with books on every conceivable useful topic, with a smattering of classical fiction.  He even had some books by Kurzweil, but they were more of a foil for my uncle; a warning of sorts, maybe.   Even in the old digital age, my family had an affection for books.   Curling up with a book was treat, and there were lots of bits of useful knowledge in them.   All the better, when the power and networks glitched.

“Are you happy, uncle, that they, that *you* were right?”

“Of course not.   What Cassandra is happy that people didn’t listen when disaster is approaching? No rational person wants to see the suffering we’ve seen.   A few of us knew life was going to get hard, that reality would bite us in the ass, yes. There is small solace in knowing you were right when you could have done more, or that people of your generation hate most of the folks from my and your grandpa’s generation.”

I didn’t hate grandpa or my uncle; not at all.   He taught me a lot of useful stuff growing up, as did my uncle.   Even though we’ve got pocket calculators, I’ve got his old slide rule (“a more elegant calculator, for a more civilized age,” my uncle joked) – he always loved giving away tools and useful things and teaching how to use them.    His own background in chemistry also got passed down a bit, and lived on in a lot of what we did in the distillery.   But this line of ranting was par for the course.   He was getting old, and I let him run on, like a fish who had taken the line.   If you let him go long enough, he’d burn himself out in a bit; if you had to get stuff done, you’d nod your head, and the lecture would be over in a few minutes, rather than hours.   My kids had learned quickly too.

From my perspective, it really didn’t matter much to me what a bunch of old guys said about what my daily life was like.   My life was my life; it was lived, and that was that. No major philosophical musings here; at thirty one, I had other things to worry about, like a family of my own, putting food on the table, making sure my wife and kids were healthy, and that things held together.   My uncle always had the luxury of thinking the big thoughts.

Even still, with whatever the most recent news, good or bad, was in hand, he’d press me again, “Who was right?”

Bartlett, of course, was always right. Math isn’t wrong. The magic of the exponential function was something my uncle taught me years ago, and I still remember the surprise when he showed my the chessboard and grain of sand trick.   Oddly enough, although the math was right, the exponential function wasn’t what directly caused the mess we were in.   That which got us was more of a statistics thing, like tossing a coin ten times and getting ten heads in a row. Rare, yes, but still very possible.

It did come in handy in school once, when I bet my best friend Ogden he couldn’t keep doubling grains of sand on a checkerboard.  Ogden is the son of one of my uncle’s friends; not a technical guy, so the math wasn’t apparent to him.   But he has other skills, somewhat darker ones, but which help keep us all safe. Along with his father, he helps run what we call the ‘county defense constabulary’. We don’t get much trouble these days, and they help keep it that way. I still have to attend drill, like everyone else, but a good communication network keeps everyone in the county on alert, and trouble to a minimum.   Along with the screamers, it is rare that someone can slip by the community and do any damage. It still is scary when you hear a neighbor’s screamer go off, even when nineteen times out of twenty it is by accident. Luckily, that statistic has been dropping over the years. Ogden had to deal with one of the twenty at a young age, and he was pretty shaken up afterwards.   But, like his dad, he was able to handle it, and after a few too many of them a decade ago, he’s adapted. He does act a bit differently though.   He’s still a good friend, and we still go fishing together, but he’s still a bit distant. My uncle said it happens to people in combat, and even if you walk away, you still carry it with you.   He pointed me to an old book, quite literally called On Killing in his library and said it might help me understand what my friend might have had to deal with.   There’s also a ratty old fiction book called Mad Max in my uncle’s library, about what a future dystopia (what my uncle calls ‘life now’) might look like, but in reading it, the idea of anyone driving on our so-called-roads at anything over 10 mph in a gasoline powered automobile sounds ludicrous. Whoever wrote that was far off the mark. Going fast in an automobile is something that I do remember, though. Australia sounded interesting, that’s for sure.   But it was as far away as the moon, as far as I was concerned.

As far as Greer went, his fiction was set a bit far in our own future, so I don’t know if the country will go in the direction he sees.   There are rumblings, of course, but we hear so little from the central government.   There is a guild of sorts for pickers, however, and perhaps that is what his ‘ruinmen’ were all about.   Ours do seem to be a bit more ruthless; maybe they will turn into Greer’s seemingly more refined ruinmen one day.    He did call a few things right, though.   We’ve certainly changed a lot; but ‘collapsing’ faster or slower?  How can you even measure such a thing as ‘collapse’?   My uncle and a few of his friends say that in some ways, we are better off; hardly anybody in town is overweight, for sure, and practically everyone here works at something, or they don’t eat.  You certainly know your neighbors.   Is that ‘collapse’?   For people who think they can chart it all with numbers, that’s great – but where do you get the data?  In theory, we are supposed to get a census every ten years, and maybe that would tell us something, putting some data on a chart, but the last time someone from the central government came through here, it wasn’t so much a door-to-door thing, but just a chat with everyone at town hall, and a squinty-eyed estimate of how many people lived around here.

For sure, we still have a tiny bit of shortwave radio, although the ionosphere acts up every so often with some sort of recurring atmospheric ulcer from time to time.   Maybe the magnetic poles are shifting as well.   The Big Zap of ’15 (a version of the Carrington Event, so my uncle says) made our supply of exotic electronics a bit scarce; not everything got fried then, but the synergistic effects started the ball rolling.   We still get lots of news from the greater Northeast (and to a much lesser extent, the world) on a regular basis, but it doesn’t help much, except for the weather and a bit of trading information sometimes.   Heck, I’ve even heard Jim K. on the radio out of the Saratoga, but his biting monthly screed in the Saratoga Sentinel at eighty plus is how most people know of him around these parts. Ti sends paper down there to the Sentinel; a sideline for us,  but paper is still useful to the world. Jim sketched out our corner of New York pretty well; he definitely had a flair for words then,  and  still does now.  He does get points for describing our diet pretty well, for sure, right down to the problems with wheat, and how we sweeten food.   Ironically, the few times I actually did have Cheezedoodles (something anyone under twenty can’t understand), they weren’t a big hit with me; I much preferred the real food of my grandfather, God rest his soul.   At least our family never bought into the traditional American diet to start with, so we didn’t have ‘far to fall’ in that department.

With the blistering drought in New Mexico and the Four Corners and beyond, and all the devastation in the West, was McPherson right?   Heck if I knew.   Reports were sketchy, and the news wasn’t good.   They haven’t had rain, in what, ten years? How anyone even thought that living there was ever a good idea, even before things went poof in ’15 still amazed me. But if he was still living in the southwest, there was a good (and better than good) chance he wasn’t alive.   The place was barren, a real dustbowl.   For him, extinction may have been quite real, and quite ‘up front and personal’ as they used to say.    The jury was still out; it did seem to be  getting warmer around here, that’s for sure, but occasionally, we still got some incredibly cold winters.

“Orlov had his Thirteen Commandments…. didn’t he realize that only God Himself had only Ten?!”

My uncle thought he was original with that; from reading in his own library during the winter (and his own comments during previous diatribes) I knew that Clemenceau had made a similar comment about Wilson’s Fourteen Points regarding World War One.    Orlov was no idiot, I’m sure he knew about the Ten Commandments, even if he was raised in Russia.  Orlov might have whittled it down a bit, yeah, but if anyone from that era was spot on about who was surviving these days, he was.   Our small community was central to our survival, and although bigger than most others and what good ol’ Dmitry had suggested, we knew it. Growing up, as one of the ‘digital natives’, my ‘community’ was through my ever present iPod Touch, but when the Big Zap happened in ’15, bandwidth dropped from a torrent to a tiny trickle, and we had more pressing things to do than watch television or our game screens.   And we sure started to know our neighbors a lot more intimately. The sociological stuff that he sketched out is pretty much a good description for a lot of our life up here these days, but that being said, it wasn’t that far removed from what Ticonderoga was when my mom moved up here as a nurse so long ago.   It was a small town then, and a small town now.

In some ways, those cool toys were missed, but other interesting things have taken their place. I’ve got to admit, there is a great thrill in knowing the secret language of Morse, and knowing we are some of the few who have any ‘bandwidth’ at all. My son and daughter both have picked it up at an early age; their great uncle beamed with pride when they tapped out ‘Happy Birthday’ to him five years ago, singing “dit dit dit dit … dit dah …”. Very clever, those two. A long time ago, myself and some of the other key jockeys in town even learned some French, thinking we could flirt with the female key jockeys up in Quebec.  Learning a few hundred words of French also helped a bit with trading up north, so it wasn’t something completely driven by teenage hormones.  Being a key jockey also got you out of some more unpleasant chores; if you know a bit of engineering and math, you can be part of a survey crew, help in the main shops, or go out with the recovery teams.   As much grief as I give my uncle, the little bit of expanded math and lectures on mechanical and electrical stuff he’s taught me and my kids over the years have given me and them a bit of a leg up on others around here.   To think that the idea of going to school once filled me with dread! Nowadays, it is a welcome break from hard physical labor for any of the younger kids.

Orlov hit a few other things on the head. As far as being at sea was concerned, it was a good place to ride out the initial shocks, but you certainly had to be on your toes. The weather and pirates had made life on the water a bit rough, but the fortunes to be made were fantastic.   Anyone who could bring up lemons (no more oranges or bananas, alas) to New England, or bring tea or coffee from even further away would be rolling in gold and silver and sitting pretty. In my younger years it sounded like a great adventure, but the risks were very real.   My own expeditions down the Hudson with Ogden and his dad were relatively easy, but the one time we had a close calls south of Port Hudson made me realize that life on a boat, a long way from home could be very tricky. A few scary shortwave transmissions cemented that. I’ll stick with my telegraph, shortwave, and surveying instruments right in town, thank you. My wife, apart from the time we have to drill, also likes the fact that I’m home every night.

A lot of those guys had the right view, for sure, but as my uncle says, it was only a bit of luck that a massive solar flare, rather than an epidemic, a terrorist nuke, running out of cheap oil, or an economic crash that took us all down a peg.  Everything was so closely coupled together, that once one important thing screwed up, the rest followed. Of course, we got those other things too, as a matter of consequence, but it was good ol’ Sol that started the avalanche; how ironic, considering that the Sun is what powers most of our community here.   Live by the sun, die by the sun. Folks like Tainter did get the part about things falling apart, yep.   And Nature didn’t even have to push that hard.

Life for us in Ticonderoga during the ‘transition’ was easier than most, since we had the power station. Since Ti was in a strategic spot, even since Revolutionary times, we had a decent amount of traffic coming through Lake Champlain and Lake George, and with a connection to the old state canal system, we had a good thing going. There were a lot of things to trade and fix, and the agricultural stuff that came from the surrounding area could even be refrigerated, or at least cooled somewhat. The ice houses on Lake George made a big comeback quickly, that’s for sure, and my first real job was cutting ice – again the ironies of history; one of my great-grandfathers delivered ice over a century ago.  The weather these past few  winters has been a bit warm, though, and the ice hasn’t been as thick as in previous years – something that everyone is nervous about.   But there was still plenty enough to make ice cream in the height of the summer – even the old ice cream shop that my mom used to go to on after her nurse job at the local medical center was still in business, after a fashion.  Milk has been in relatively good supply these past few years, and so anything milk based has been easy to make. Although the flavors are always based on things like we get locally; mint, strawberry, and so on; signs for chocolate and vanilla were still up, but the prices were listed as ‘arm’ and ‘leg’; sometimes a joker would post ‘keep’ and ‘dreaming.’ We once got some vanilla in a heaven-knows-how-long-it-took-to-get-here trade, and it was amazing what it can do to ice cream.   It still trips my mind that they used to use the word vanilla for ‘plain’. My son thinks it is OK, but my daughter loved it. Hope she doesn’t get used to it.

Power was the big one, though. It took some time to get things sorted out after the Big Zap, but the timeless usefulness of gravity and water has always been a huge draw. The Big Zap didn’t wipe out everything, but again, just enough to tip things in the wrong direction. After things got put back together, the electricity allowed us to act a relay station for a few telegraph lines, and run a multitude of shops in the old community college buildings, and a few wheels on La Chute took care of stuff like sawing wood.

My uncle started up with his rant again.

“Going through the science fiction of my own time and before, I used to think, ‘Who got my own shiny techno-era right?’ Orwell? Heinlein? Asimov?   Wells? Verne?   A mix of all of them, perhaps.”

“Unc, why is this even important?”   I know what life was like before, and what it is now.   Who cares about who was right, and who was wrong?   Yeah, it’s no walk in the park, and there are no more Saturday morning cartoons, but who cares who was right? My life is ice in the winter, distilling in the summer, walking everywhere, and keeping busy in between.”

“It isn’t so much who was right or wrong, although yes, I do tend to harp sometimes on who got it right.   Score one for you.”

He got a bit wistful, and thought a bit more.

“The key was that they actually thought of possible futures, and how we might act and react to things.  None of them was precisely right, and none of them was precisely wrong! Remember Star Trek? No, you probably don’t.”

Star Trek. Yeah, I’d heard of it.   Again, I let the man go on.

“Well, someone had an idea about what the future might look like, and countless engineers and scientists looked to that as a template.   Of course, they forgot about some basic things like resource constraints… but at least they thought about a future!”

Oh boy, I thought.   He’s really on a roll now.   Silence wasn’t helping.

“Someone in society still has to think about things to come, even if they don’t know what it looks like.   You’re a smart guy.”

At least he stopped calling me a kid these past few years. Old people.

“You have a talent for math and the technical things I’ve taught you. You also have a latent one for writing.   One helps us now, and the other that could help us in the future. I’m not talking about research on new crops, or new technical stuff…”

“Yeah, I know… that’s not happening anyway.”

“OK, point taken.   But you still should write. Write about what things might happen. It’s one thing to put a chart or list of numbers in front of someone; you see how boring those numbers are at the town meetings, even though our lives depend them, some people still don’t get it.   Even all the Lake George winter ice thickness data is a bit dry, and people tend to zone out when listening to it.   It’s another thing to put those numbers in a story; if anything got my ass in gear, thinking about the future, it was the fiction; even the bad stuff.   Descriptions of life filled with humans who had to struggle with many of the same things we all do.”

Asimov to Orlov; Verne to Greer; Orwell to McPherson; Huxley to Kunstler; Heinlein to Heinberg (although the alliteration was nice, those two probably wouldn’t have seen eye to eye!). An interesting progression.   Come to think of it, what really did motivate me ten years ago, taking those trips down the Hudson?   Yes, there was promise of a good haul and useful shiny things, but Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, via Mr. Clemens got me fired up more than anything else, even if the end result got me wanting me to be back in Ti.   My son was reading those same stories, but in a world with rising sea levels and plumes of radioactive dust, a lot of stuff was starting to lose relevance. How could you go down the Mississippi when the Mississippi became a big lake in the not too distant future, or if so many cities along it were shells of their former selves?

There’s something to be said for at least taking a shot at what might happen.   After today’s ice haul, I’ll think some more of what the future might look like, after the dust settles.   Time to get some pencils, and start to write my own stories of the future; a future that starts now, but goes out twenty, a hundred years. The politics of what Ticonderoga, and our great Essex County might be like; how the president gets elected a hundred years from now; how we handle the next epidemic, with the mish-mash of stuff we have.   What is going on outside these not-so-great United States of Tattered America. Maybe even a sailing trip to Europe, or the Mediterranean, across the raging Atlantic?

Who knows, they might be even partially right.   Maybe my name will be added to a new list of seers.  Maybe I’ll write about my crazy uncle too.

For right now, for today, those future stories will have to stay in my head. Now, it’s back to work, and hauling ice.