The summer of 1988, however, had been one of the hottest on record in North America, and rural Spain had been a spectacle of unchecked development and garbage-strewn hillsides and diesel exhaust, and after the dismantlement of the Berlin Wall the prospect of nuclear annihilation (my longtime pet apocalypse) was receding somewhat, and the great thing about the rape of nature, as an alternative apocalypse, was the opportunity it gave me to blame myself. I had grown up listening to daily lectures on personal responsibility. My father was a saver of string and pencil stubs and a bequeather of fantastic Swedish Protestant prejudices. (He considered it unfair to drink a cocktail at home before going to a restaurant, because restaurants depended on liquor sales for profits.) To worry about the Kleenexes and paper towels I was wasting and the water I was letting run while I shaved and the sections of the Sunday Times I was throwing away unread and the pollutants I was helping to fill the sky with every time I took an airplane came naturally to me.

I argued passionately with a friend who believed that fewer BTUs were lost in keeping a house at 68 degrees overnight than in raising the temperature to 68 in the morning. Every time I washed out a peanut-butter jar, I tried to calculate whether less petroleum might be used in manufacturing a new jar than in heating the dishwater and transporting the old jar to a recycling center.

My wife moved out in December 1990. A friend had invited her to come and live in Colorado Springs, and she was ready to escape the pollution of her living space by me. Like modern industrialized society, I continued to bring certain crucial material benefits to our household, but these benefits came at an ever greater psychic cost. By fleeing to the land of open skies, my wife hoped to restore her independent nature, which years of too-married life had compromised almost beyond recognition.

She rented a pretty apartment on North Cascade Avenue and sent me excited letters about the mountain weather. She became fascinated with narratives of pioneer women—tough, oppressed, resourceful wives who buried dead infants, watched freak June blizzards kill their crops and livestock, and survived to write about it. She talked about lowering her resting pulse rate below thirty.

Back in New York, I didn't believe we'd really separated. It may have become impossible for us to live together, but my wife's sort of intelligence still seemed to me the best sort, her moral and aesthetic judgments still seemed to me the only ones that counted. The smell of her skin and the smell of her hair were restorative, irreplaceable, the best. Deploring other people— their lack of perfection— had always been our sport. I couldn't imagine never smelling her again.

The next summer, we went car-camping in the West. I was frankly envious of my wife's new Western life, and I also wanted to immerse myself in nature, now that I'd become environmentally conscious. For a month, the two of us followed the retreating snow up through the Rockies and Cascades, and made our way back south through the emptiest country we could find. Considering that we were back together 24/7, sharing a small tent, and isolated from all social contacts, we got along remarkably well.
"My Bird Problem" excerpted from The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonathan Franzen. © 2006


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