Wednesday, August 29, 2012

On "Happiness You Have to Earn, Not Steal" by Kristy Davis (1759 words) *****

Okay, so this story mixes one narrative line with another to make an obvious statement about both: bedbugs and an old boyfriend. No matter, you can't get rid of them. You obsess about them--how you got them, how they got away. Davis's tale mashes the two up well, but she also has a knack for language that makes this piece more than the sum of its parts. Think dialogue, little lines the narrator remembers, not things we'd find important but this narrator still feels. Think read this story, now, here, at Swink.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

On "After He Stays" by Melanie Yarbrough (378 words) ***

Yarbrough short tale is a summary of a relationship metaphorically transformed into a single first night. Here is a couple whose knowledge of one another is still shaky and but whose liking for one another is enough that there is a kind of comfort they wouldn't otherwise feel. In that, we see things as they might be years down the road, and what the ultimate cost of that might be. Read the story here at Ramshackle Review.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

On "Soup Bean Annie" by Linda Simoni-Wastila (441 words) ***

Simoni-Wastila conjures up a voice here that is fun to delve into. Yes, in a way, we've seen it before, but not in a long time and not quite like this. It reads as singular here. The story is a simple one, a woman waiting on her man to return. But the piece becomes more than the sum of its parts when one gets to the end, where the author hints at what might really being going on, which is more than we wish to imagine. Read the story here at Pure Slush.

Monday, August 20, 2012

On "Pretenders" by Toshiki Kojo (1943 words) ***

Toshiki Kojo's "Pretenders" is about, as you might guess, the genuiness in our identities and our lives. It's about the roles we play. This piece has a kind of Far Eastern feel to it, for it draws, as I see it, from Buddhist traditions. The "real" us is what we are in the moment. We are not separate from our acts. Then there is the label that others put on us and that we put on ourselves. We can be a groper--or we can actually grope. Which is more real? The thing we do or the thing that we are perceived to be or the thing we perceive ourselves to be? In the end, we're all just breaths and bodies, little packets of energy (matter) along the continuum of the same. Read the story here at In Posse Review.

On "Drowning the Dream" by David Carle ****

This short monograph is a brief history of California water usage and a call to conservation. Carle's basic premise is that California's staggering growth was not only made possible by engineering feats that brought water from the northern and mountainous regions of the state to the coastal and southern regions of the state but was in fact a direct result of such actions. "If you build it," one might say, "they will come." If you make the water available, the population will expand accordingly. The key to solving California's perennial water problem, therefore, isn't making more water available but rather limiting the amount of water available so that fewer people will wish to live in the state.

It's a sort of chicken and egg argument: Does increasing population cause water shortages or does increasing water availability cause increases in population? Carle favors the latter. And he supports his point by following the growth advocates who have helped make California the state that it is.

The book begins with an account of the stable Indian populations that lived in the area before the coming of the European explorers and settlers. And then, it tells a tale of widespread boosterism and exploitation, making its main start with the discovery of gold in 1848. Those who came to California weren't coming with families. They weren't coming to settle. They weren't coming with the idea of setting up homesteads and taking care of the land. They were coming to make a quick buck, with the intention of returning to the land from which they came. As a result, American settlement of the state began within a tradition that has been maintained ever since: get as much as you can from the resources, environment be damned. So much sediment washed down streams in the search for gold, Carle notes at one point, that more than eight times the amount of earth was moved than in the making of the Panama Canal. That's a lot of dirt, a lot of erosion.

Amid these fortune seekers were those who set up shop as landowners, including railroads. Rather than a land of small farms, because of the vast tracts granted to railway interests, California become a state of large farming interests, which continues to this very day. Those large farming interests tend to see land as an investment rather than as a part of the natural order of things. If more can be made by selling said land to urban dwellers, then by all means the land should be turned over accordingly. Hence, schemes that involve bringing water to otherwise unsellable, mostly desert land are commonplace. Once there's water, the land has value, both for farmers and ultimate for suburbanites.

Growth is main argument for such water projects. Projections are made about how much water the state will need in X number of years. Water is thus acquired. Carle argues that projections are their own self-fulfillment. Project for fewer, and you'll have less growth. But less growth would also mean less ability to sell off land at higher prices to incoming state residents.

Familiar tales are told--of how Los Angeles bought up Owens Valley water rights to settle the San Fernando Valley and enrich a few choice landowners who pushed most heavily for the need for said water; of how part of a national park was dammed to provide drinking water to San Francisco; of how the Colorado was used to help grow other Southern California communities. Also explained are how residents more recently have turned down big new water projects that would shift more water from north to south (though Jerry Brown recently brought the rejected Peripheral Canal project back to life, so perhaps more water maneuvering is still to come), and how environmental concerns have started to eat into the continuing willingness to exploit California's limited water supplies.

At some points, Carle hypothesizes on the state that could have been--a Los Angeles with a population of half a million, a Bishop (in the Sierra Nevadas, near Owens Lake) with a similarly sized population. He points to Santa Barbara, which until a drought, had refused to join up with the state's water plan--and as a result had maintained a reasonably small town size and avoided ballooning growth. So perhaps, there is something to Carle's argument.

That's not to say that I buy the argument wholesale. Populations do get larger, and whether those people settle in California or elsewhere, those people still have to settle somewhere and affect some area's water supplies. Granted, limited supplies will limit growth--higher prices for water or for electricity will drive people to settle elsewhere (I'm a former Californian myself after all, and high cost of living I didn't return to the state after college); rationing is annoying and also likely to stir some to go to another place. But simply shifting population around doesn't necessarily solve the problem.

Carle proposes, as do many environmentalists, that human population simply needs to stop growing. Again, it's a nice idea, but one whose implementation I worry about. How exactly do we discourage people from having children, when that seems such a basic human function and need? And is that the only solution, or does wiser use of our resources also play a role? Still, I am in agreement that growth should not be our main motivation for all decisions--or rather, that the definition of economic growth (bigger is better, more is better) needs to be changed in such a way that it recognizes quality (healthier ways of living) not just quantity (higher GDP).

Friday, August 17, 2012

On "Fat As a Cat" by Erin Zulkoski (340 words) ***

This short work is a character study in miniature and almost solely in action. It tells of what happens to a couple after all is over through a simple conversation and of why all IS over. I like how Zulkoski manages to tell us so much about these people in so few words. Read the story here at Negative Suck.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

On "Hulking Leviathan the Sun" by Brit Naylor (970 words) ***

Don't look for some kind of hulking plot in this one. Naylor's not writing that kind of story. You won't so much wonder where the story is going as wonder where each and every sentence is going. This is a story about youth and about seasons. The themes have been around forever, but it's the language that counts here. This is summer as it once was, as you wanted it to be, as you want it to be again, as it will never be again, as it never really was, as it should be, as it is in our recantations. This, this is summer. Right here, at the Moulin Review.

On "Introduction to Water in California" by David Carle ****

Similar in concept to Water in Texas, this book runs through the basics of the California water system. While I largely preferred the Texas book's organization (though there was at least one clunky chapter that I'd have pulled to the back as an appendix), Carle had a knack with words that the Texas water book's author did not, making the California book in some ways a better read. Its charts are also particularly fascinating, with for example one given over to sizing rivers by how much water is taken from them for each major metropolitan area of the state.

Because California seems to be the epicenter for water issues and because I grew up in the state, I was much more aware of many of the items recounted in this book than I was in the Texas book. This is also, of course, the fourth book on water I've read in a row, so likewise, there's been some redundancy in terms of things I hadn't known until now.

Like most of the water books, this one starts with a general introduction about water itself (its various unique properties) and about the water cycle (how it goes from land to sea to sky). Added to this section in Carle's book is information about how California's landscape is one of extreme wet and extreme dry, depending on the year (and even during the course of the year, since virtually all of the state's precipitation arrives between December and February). Hence, there is no true average, and water planners have to adjust accordingly. This is one reason that in many ways California's is perhaps one of the most human-manipulated water supplies in the country.

How manipulated it is is made plain in the third section of the book, where Carle discusses the state's water distribution system. Subsections are devoted to each delivery system, each aqueduct.

This isn't to say that natural watersheds are ignored. Those are discussed in the second section of the book, with again subsections given over to each hydrologic region. What is made plain is how water comes mostly from the north and the mountains and is transferred to the south and the shore. This obviously has huge environmental impacts, which are picked up on in the fourth and fifth sections of the book, on the challenges the California water system presents.

As in Texas, overdrafting of groundwater is a problem because once again it is largely unregulated. Whoever owns the land above can use the water below. I certainly would want the rights to dig a well on my own property. But this can lead to problems, since groundwater isn't unconnected to surface water, and if one landowner draws out a huge share, then others who use the same aquifer will suffer. One solution in California has been to recharge groundwater with waste water and other reserves, which has some benefits (as well as costs). It was interesting to learn that Glendale, close to my birth home, had its groundwater despoiled, so that unlike Pasadena, where I grew up, it can no longer get part of its water from beneath the ground.

There has been some negative reaction against the reuse of waste water, but as the author notes, residents often aren't aware that "pristine" water from surface sources often is waste water from cities further up in the watershed. In fact, often, treated waste water is cleaner than water coming into a particular area for just this reason. Such pollution has also led to concerns about Giardia, a waterborne parasite that makes some worry about the safety of backcountry water. Indeed, fecal contamination is somewhat widespread, leading some backpackers to pack bottled water. But as the author notes, this concern is a bit overhyped--most tap water, which is treated, is likely to contain a higher concentration of Giardia cysts, and bottled water (often pulled from said streams or from tap water itself) but without the safety testing is likely to be even worse. The better thing to do is to use common sense--when hiking, pull water upstream and away from camps and trails where there is plenty of flow where it's likely to be cleaner.

In the final challenges section, the author also tackles the need for conservation, showing the ways that cities like Los Angeles have managed to cut back on water use even as the population has increased--through reuse and better use. As with virtually every state, almost every good potential dam site has been dammed, so achieving more efficiencies by storing more isn't really an option. Beyond that, such dams create environmental concerns that the state is now paying closer attention to. The filling in (via sediment buildup) and upcoming destruction or renovation of dams offers opportunities for California to reassess some of its water management strategies.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

On "The Hula War" by Paul Silverman (2751 words) ***

This story is full of wonderful turns of phrase and wonderful thoughts on turns of phrases. The author focuses on words that seem, at some level, to make no sense together--the soft and hard combined into one, like "flower headquarters" or "pineapple grenade."

This combination of soft and hard meets also in our characters and in their lives. Christine (the hula girl) and Patrick are couple. The former is soft in her girlish sort of way, the latter a wizened old soldier. Or so it appears. By story's end, it is the sensibilities of Patrick that are shaken and Christine is the resolute force lofting bombs. This is a piece on cultural alienation and cultural adoption, the ways in which we forge identity through our willed connections to the world around us. Read the story here at Moulin Review.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

On "Ohio Drive" by Geoffrey Spurgin (323 words) ***

This short piece focuses on a single question, a philosophical one, poised in a book. Place the question now in a different situation and see where it leads. Something tells me that Spurgin doesn't think the answer is as obvious as the protagonists do. Myself, I see the conundrum posed by the question and recognize that sometimes our values aren't always where, perhaps, they should be, just as sometimes we assume one value goes hand in hand with the other. Read the story here at Moulin Review.

On "Water in Texas" by Andrew Samson ****

Fred Powledge's Water said at one point that Texas had one of the best water management plans in the country. After reading Samson's book, I'm not so sure. Many of the same problems that come to the fore in Powledge's work exist in Texas as well, as one might expect, but Texas hasn't exactly been great at managing the resource.

Texas is a strange state, at least I found it so when I lived there, and I'm sure a few other people would say the same. It's sort of southern, sort of midwestern, sort of western--really, it's just Texas. And it's water has the kind of unique dynamic as well. The eastern part of the state is wet; the western part is a desert. (Actually, in that sense, Texas isn't unlike California, with its water in the north and its desert in the south.) Part of that unique dynamic is the result of history and the way in which Texas's water laws came into being. The eastern United States largely has riparian water right laws--anyone on the river has rights to use it; the western United States has water laws based on a Spanish system of prior appropriation (the first to claim/buy the rights to the water owns it, even if someone else happens to come and live right next to it later).

This puts two seeming systems into great conflict. The reality in Texas, however, is less a conflict than I had been led to suppose from Powledge's text. For the most part, in the past few decades, Texas has converted almost wholly to a system of prior appropriation, with only a few minor riparian laws still hanging on.

Where Texas really fails, however, is in its regulation of groundwater. In fact, while lots of laws apply to surface water, pretty much groundwater can be had by whoever owns the land and rights. This poses some problems, since groundwater isn't inexhaustible, and groundwater often affects how much surface water there actually is.

Some other things I learned and hadn't thought much about before in terms of conserving water: (1) Municipality reuse of water actually tends to mean that there will be less water for those downstream. I've always thought of reuse as a good thing, but as the author points out, if you have rights to 100 cubic feet of water and pass 80 percent back into the stream, that leaves 80 cf for the next city, plus whatever else comes into the river in between. Technically, you may have rights to the 100 cubic feet and use all of it, but that 80 still gets spit out from sewage or whatever. Now, if your city decides instead to take that 80 and use it again to water lawns or something, then less gets passed on.

(2) The problem with desalination isn't just the expense. There's also the issue of what to do with the saltier water that's left over. It would be one thing if solids and liquids separated completely, but desalination usually only claims a percentage of the water as fresh. The rest is water that is even more salty or brackish than it was before. And that means pollution wherever it ends up.

So what's the scary part for Texas? Well, it's five-year plans, built around the 2060 plan, seem like a good start, but there are issues. Reuse means more water for some, less for others. Overuse means less water for environmental concerns (such as keeping bays and estuaries with an appropriate mix of salt and fresh water so that organisms that depend on them can thrive). Groundwater is in danger of being overpumped, and much of that water is from the vast but limited Ogallala aquifer, which isn't replenishable in the near term. Samson, in his cool-headed specificity, actually makes water seem like more of a concern than than Powledge in his hysteria.

The book itself is, as the subtitle notes, an introduction. There isn't a lot of narrative here, but there are lots of beautiful pictures and graphs. Most of the book is devoted to laying out river regions and then Gulf Shore bays, but the most interesting material to me came in the later chapters, on law, on planning, on whether there is enough water, on what's in the water, and on what water's worth.

It's the latter that also proves to be an interesting question. We pay little for it, but obviously, the answer is one that inevitably is politically charged. Do we count survival of shrimp in the cost of water? How much is a boater's usage worth? And so on.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

On "The Bushmaster" by Josh Green (6192 words) ***

Juan Picasso is a salesman, a lady's man, a wildman. One knows early in this story what is going to happen, for it is what always happens around Juan, yet one remains transfixed, because, after all, Juan is Juan. He's like a seething faraway volcano at night, a rare sloth spotted thirty feet above in a tree, or a colorful snake. He is dangerous, but we watch anyway, for after all, the mystery of how a spider weaves its web is one we want to decipher, especially if we can do so in less than an hour. Take Juan's tour here at Midway Journal.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

On "Decline" by Melanie Browne (2342 words) ****

Browne's tale is about the imagination, the way we can live in the world of celebrity, putting on to them troubles and triumphs we might wish were part of our own world. Things seem bigger on a stage. What I like so much about the story, however, are the set of fan letters that our rock musician receives. They're from one deluded and lonely person (to another, we might say). The letters are fascinating and hilarious, full of things we would probably never write to one another--and full of secrets, obsessions and otherwise. I'm reminded a bit of the letters at the start of Nathaniel West's Miss Lonelyhearts. Those too descend to ridiculous depths. Here, however, they're all from one mind to another. Read the letters and the accompanying story here at Storyglossia.