2 Comments

Names They Have Called Me

Gorey and his cats. Image: Children's Book Council

Gorey and his cats. Image: Children’s Book Council

“What?”

As a child, this was the most common response to telling someone my name. What was dispensed in a neutral tone for the first name. The second name most often skipped the what altogether for hard confusion, or laughter.

Getting older and going to school, the relationship changed. Older people’s doting and affected surprise gave way to tough kids who liked the word faggot. I don’t blame them: stay in your wheelhouse. But teachers and other authorities, ostensibly held to a higher standard, could’ve tried harder.

Texas was challenged with pronouncing my name, and walked away. On the first day of class, I would wait for the inevitable lurch in reading the class roll while the teacher attempted to parse syllables that weren’t bland Anglo-Saxon or, rarely, Hispanic. As time went on, I acquired a little catalog of the possibilities. Matching which one would come out of what teachers’ mouth became a private game.

The Name That Will Come Game

Match the incorrect spelling and pronunciation of your name against what the other person interprets from what they read off a paper, or hear from your careful, if shy, pronunciation.

Correct pattern to match: Derek Dexheimer [DERR-ek DEX-hy-mer]

(The family name is German, lit.: a person from County Dexheim, in Bavaria.)

What You Will Probably Hear (with probability for the last name):

Doctor Dayxmeer (a rare bird I distinctly remember – less than 1%)

Derek Dexelmeier (5%)

Derek Dextimemer (15%)

Dexter Dexleimer (20%)

Delk Dexenmeier (20%)

Decter Dexenheimer (easy favorite – 40%)

or some permutation thereof – last and first name mix-and-match.

Most kids laughed and forgot about it–by third grade I had stopped changing schools, so everybody knew the joke. The feeble and humorless fossils Texas retained for its elementary school teaching staff were flummoxed and then hostile that I showed them up, their huffing and puffing becoming a foundation of a shared Stalag kind of humor. The kids who liked faggot pulled a few punches.

Every so often a kid would be upset by my name’s mangling. All were earnest country boys who came to school with their jackets dusty from stables, their eyes innocent-wide and tough from work, but not hard.

“Man, you can’t let ’em walk on your family name like that.”

I don’t remember his name, hardly more than the brown eyes and the jacket with its dust. His shock was sincere. He was upset the teacher had so mangled my name, and maybe moreso that I didn’t protest.

“It’s not a big deal. It’s too hard for everybody to say right.”

Even turned around in the ancient desk, the kid reared. I had thrown a moral snake at him, and he had never seen such a thing.

“Dexheimer.” His shock turned sullen. “I can say it right. Your family’s important. It’s all you got.”

He turned around. My memory ends. I hope he’s well, taking care with family names, and his family takes care of him.

The best name incident, by far, is this:

One bland high school day, my friend Dave tells me how his father intentionally mangled my name. “What’s the name-a that friend-a yours?” And his father, full of Texas salt, warps my name into something hilarious.

Later, looking for Dave, I call Dave’s father’s place. His father picks up. “Hello?”

“Yes, is Dave there?”

“Who’s callin’?”

“This is Dexter Dickhandler.”

The man chokes. “Uh, just a minute.” The handset clatters on a countertop, and I hear in that old Bell System distance: “Goddammit, David! I told yew not to tell ‘im that!”

And that, friends, is how I left all annoyance, disgust, raw-feeling and grasping of how things should be and received the wisdom of my own

Ineffable effable
Effanineffable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

 

T.S. Eliot - A Very Practical Cat. Image: The Spectator

T.S. Eliot – A Very Practical Cat. Image: The Spectator

 

 

Advertisements
2 Comments

Some People I Knew

Peter Netherland's lost recordings

Peter Netherland’s lost recordings

I am not sad now.

Sad is too light a word, like using steam to build a bridge. What weight could such a bridge hold? But the world is bigger than our sense of it, and, depending on conditions, steam can hold a lot. Trapped inside a cylinder, it can pull a chain and lift that bridge, no problem.

I won’t argue with you, or myself, about what I mean. Even if there is no word, we know the thing. The broken glass of laughter from a far room. Taking a shower and wondering how your hands don’t pass through yourself. Long nights of silence and echoes under a yawning sky. It doesn’t color the world. It is the world.

Most people have this experience–depression, if you see a doctor for it–as a fleeting visitor, tromping around with muddy shoes a while before making a thankful exit. For a minority, this thing is cultured, personable, even welcoming. Like a friend we don’t like but keep around out of obligation, or their usefulness to us, it has its place with us at the table and in the passenger seat, every sensation filtered through its cool and unavoidable presence. Wherever you go, whatever you think, there it is.

How funny that unshakeable thing transforms into a friend.

This essay is about two people I knew growing up. I met them in middle and high school: one my age (I am now 47, in 2017), and one a few years older. They are dead now.

I have been in no hurry to write this. Partly it was from my distance from them: one I knew only in passing. The other was a wild kind of friend…in 1990. Since disappearing in 2005, he re-emerged only in 2015. I met him at a reunion that October. He was the same.

But part of my lack of action has been that thin and terrible too-good friend. Not like the old days: no, that airless haze is long gone. But it has been a little gloomy, being back at a job to build up money to have more time like the time I had bought with my previous savings that I could have used better. It’s not hard work, and sometimes I enjoy it, but every week is entering 40 hours and clicking Submit: to hours in the car or on the bus or subway, staring at screens, wondering what am I doing?

Whether from citalopram, or antibiotics, or the sun coming out (if you’re watching for it), I’m feeling the moss fall off. I have saved money. I write every week and the second draft is filling in, the third draft kicking at the door. (I haven’t written here to put my energy there.) I’ve learned how to work my health. I have a couple friends and a girlfriend who gets it all. Maybe there will be nothing to eat by 2050, but until then, it really will be all right.

High school dreams have come back. The most prevalent one was on regular rotation in my thirties: the now-me back in high-school-then, sitting behind a desk gone small while I made up classes I forgot. That one had an uncanny realness–the walls the same tapioca brown, adult faces pinched or tired, the kids clued in to how it was all an exercise–and made sense the way dreams do. The rest are vague impressions from that time: terror of failure, anxiety about and boredom with harassment, and girls, those shrill creatures. There’s no story: just wide-lens closeups with everything crisp and huge. Whoever it is deep down making these dreams warps memory’s plastic further.

The dream resurfaced with going back to work, putting writing on the back burner and wondering if it’s any good. When the second person died–a woman my age, not a girl for a long time–it did not affect me. But maybe it did. Now that things are good and solid underneath, I can think about them.

Peter’s reputation met me first. Turning memory’s knobs sharpens the high school band hall and the L-shaped room full of cubbyholes where instruments were stored. For once it wasn’t loud and crammed with people maneuvering oblong cases. Some hubbub started beyond the L’s hook, and girls near me made their faces more sour than usual. “That guy’s a drug addict. Stay away from him.”

Terrified as I was of drugs, of bad influences, and of doing anything wrong, I left the other way. But a steady trickle of secondhand whispers followed me, shaping Peter’s image. Did you hear what that guy Peter said? Did? Gawd, I can’t believe that. Man, that guy’s hilarious.

Peter was not at all the earnest, churchgoing, middle America team player Burleson High School prided itself on. He did drugs. He blasphemed. He was not simple. He was trouble.

Meeting Peter in the flesh was as much a relief as a disappointment. After school one day, there he was: in the same corner of the L-shaped room, sitting on the small countertop by the square steel sink where students like me rinsed their reeds and mouthpieces. His constant, wild look grabbed me: bleach-bypass hair shocked upright, thick glasses framing small marble eyes, his head rotating in constant tiny songbird jerks. He looked like Eraserhead. He held a guitar in his hands.

Aside from a name, his words to me are lost, but they were friendly, and too loud. It was something like: Hey, man, you look like somebody who’d appreciate a Carl Perkins song.

Carl Perkins and Paul McCartney

Carl Perkins and Paul McCartney, performing “Get It” on McCartney’s 1982 album, “Tug of War”. (Image credit: do you know?)

And he played a song, country or blues or slow rockabilly, his voice smooth but a little high, his playing very good, at least to a high school kid. Others aimed hostile looks, but I watched Peter close his eyes and sway with his playing, this performance just for me. Maybe a little too much and veering schmaltzy, but Peter did not struggle as I did in my own artless practice. He was in a state I never knew playing music: ease.

This guy doesn’t seem so bad. And then the relief, and the opening that comes with realizing the truth is not what everybody says it is.

Peter finished the song. “Hey, man.” (Every interaction with him opened that way: hey, man.) He pushed his glasses up with one finger; he was always pushing up his Coke-bottle glasses. And he started talking. Peter’s speech was a deluge. Words gushed from him, an idea building to two-thirds complete before connecting to another, or nothing. Peter talked with me, or at me, for maybe twenty minutes. I remember floating with it, saying yeah or oh, wow here and there. It was about music, mostly, and science, and assholes at school. There wasn’t room for me, and that was fine.

Frenetic described Peter. Nothing violent or out of control, it was more like a cartoon character’s energy: revved like a puppy, excited to see the world but without grasping possible downsides. His hands moved and his head darted and his average legs made long strides while he talked and talked, always thinking aloud. A random sentence might be something like: “Hey, maybe it’s all right that Texas executes so many people. All these thunderstorms…gotta put all that juice into somebody. Zzzap!” I can’t stand by the specific words, but he said things like that, and that’s a tame example. Keep stringing sentences like that together–whether they related or not, whether they ended up in the same place or not–and that was what talking with Peter was like.

Most impressive to the teenage me was his skill of invoking the most foul comment possible unconcerned with, or unaware of, the horrified gasps to follow. There were so many! But I remember so few. The only specific examples I can remember are:

  • In a grocery store with a low-rent couple that tagged along with us, Peter wanders down the detergent aisle. He heaves a jug of bleach in each hand. “Hey, you kids oughta get this and clean yourselves up. Maybe she should drink a little. Got a third chute to clean out, know what I mean?”
  • One of his numerous bands was playing out in the country. Foolishly, I take a girl to meet him. He’s affable, saving it up. Just before we go, he addresses the girl. “Now, if y’all fuck, be sure and use a condom. Okay?”
  • Late at night on a golf course, walking and smoking cigarettes with a group of the mildly drunken. Peter paused in the moonlight to stoop over and slap his thighs, hamboning ’bout dem nigger-folk.

Some people cackled at that last one; there were some groans. Always unsure what to think or do, I appreciated Peter going the distance. Peter was incapable of second-guessing. He was too frazzled, pushing too hard ahead, not quite careening but just within control. Whatever the off thing about him was, it held him but did not squeeze him. He saw no need to rein it in.

In high school and most of college, Peter wasn’t someone I hung out with, or met and went somewhere with. He had no reliable phone number, no fixed address. He had a truck, a car, his Mom’s car, a truck of unknown provenance. At times he had nothing. Peter was a creature of moments and chances.

Peter was a little off, but he was no threat. He possessed a prodigious if inchoate intelligence he could not focus. He could not synthesize a larger whole, but in hindsight I see him only slightly more burdened with this than anyone else at that age. Still, he had a burden greater than mine. He came into the world scrambled.

Peter introduced me to drugs.

Alcohol did not interest me: my parents’ house had come with a late-Seventies status-symbol bar, and after sampling some paint-thinner-smelling bottle one latchkey-kid afternoon, nothing took. (I still don’t get it.) But Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs permeated my middle school years, and by the time I met Peter–1984, I guess–ceaseless propaganda had made clear that drugs led to the Hieronymus Bosch world of horrors imagined by the era’s televangelist moralizers. Constant drilling by school counselors, walls lined with anti-drug posters listing pills and their destructive potential, the threat of cops walking their drug dogs down the halls (though I can’t say if this was ever done) set the tone. My literal honor-roll mind gobbled up the message as intended: drugs were the end.

Some Friday evening, at the home of the high school’s self-declared misfit king, Peter played his guitar while others smoked outside or huddled around the dining table, lost in Dungeons and Dragons. Peter and a couple older guys I never saw again were talking music as they passed guitars and basses around, along with a bottle of something colorless and powerful. I was likely the youngest, recently invited to hang out with these giants at the house lost in scrubby woods. I was uncertain, and uncomfortable, but made no noise to leave. (I was too young to drive. How did I arrive or leave? Memory shouldn’t be taken too literally.) Night hollowed out the windows and warmed the incandescent light. There was so much going outside to smoke that the flow to one of the big guys bringing out a joint was unremarkable.

To me it may as well have been a grenade. There it was–marijuana–passed around like it was nothing. It was Peter who offered it to me. “Hey, man, you’re welcome to join if you want.”

Even at that first meeting, as much as I enjoyed and was even awed by his scattershot intelligence, I knew Peter needed to be kept at a little distance–just a little, to give me time to react. I was fourteen, still fuzzy on where good sense became paranoia, and still stung with getting a B in algebra the previous year. I had to watch my step.

Chips in the adult-world edifice let light penetrate the fear. The Communists couldn’t keep the lights on or feed themselves, but had continents of zap-blasters poised to destroy us all. Jesus had no answers I could tease out of the gibberish offered in his name. Blacks were filthy and evil. I hadn’t read Hunter S. Thompson or Vonnegut yet, but I had read a lot of science fiction, and LeGuin and Heinlein were all about haughty authorities being strung up by their own arrogance. I was far too timid to make a big break, but my private suspicions had grown strong roots.

Peter holds the roach out. It’s sloppy, barely smoking. Nobody’s looking at me, nobody’s pressuring. It’s just Peter and me. “Uh…”

“Hey, man, no problem, no anything, man.” Peter delves into one of his little maelstroms: hands up with mild gesticulations, head bobbing and shaking like rubber clockwork, the wild hair tossing as his eyes squinted and opened and he talked and talked. “It’s just an offer, man, and never take an offer as a compunction. In fact, never feel compelled to do anything. That’s an important thing to hold close, man. I was reading Maupassant–”

That’s not from memory, of course; no way could I retain the words so clearly. But I remember with what I believe is utter clarity his sense of welcome, lack of pressure, and immediate absorption into his own personal stream-of-consciousness. I have yet to meet anyone who can hold such court on Maupassant. It was weird, but it was also fine. I didn’t try pot for another five years, but it was Peter who showed me it was not what the powers said it was.

Weekends at the king’s house, a house band assembled. As the audio-visual nerd, I was asked to record their sessions. I made an effort, bringing the heavy Sony open reel tape recorder my Navy dad had bought while on leave in Japan. Loaded with quarter-inch Radio Shack ConcerTape and combined with its included phallic microphones, I unknowingly rendered their high school efforts to mud. But they were grateful, and so was I.

I switched to a Sharp double-cassette recorder after the birthday my grandmother bought it for me. I bought TDK standard oxide tape: the middle-nice stuff, short of superior and too-expensive chrome tape. One afternoon, after the recording was done, I put a tape in for fooling around. Somewhere among the breaks and hum, I captured Peter doing this:

Peter on the Farm – April 6, 1986 (listen)

I still have the tape.

That’s all of my Peter high school memories. College is more expansive. There are nights at parties, if that’s what are called a gathering with beer and video games and those elaborate role-playing games with the funny dice, Peter always too loud, always annoying, but never asked to go. By himself or with others, he would play guitar. While I sweated my GPA, he passed through a hazy archipelago of no-status service jobs, each island separated by smoke. He had a sequence of bands that cross-pollinated Jerry Garcia and David Bowie, none any good. I saw him at grimy middle-of-nowhere bars and corporate chain places where it didn’t matter who played Tuesday nights, each new set of bandmates more stoned and indigent than the last, all of them talking big talk I sensed was fooling themselves. Peter was someone I was glad to see, if never quite sure how to handle. After an afternoon or night, I was also glad to leave.

1990 was my Peter year. Back in Fort Worth after an intense semester in Boston, I was rattled and ashamed. I hadn’t been able to escape. I wandered 1989’s last weeks in a daze.

“Man, I’m really thinking I need to get out of this place. I need something big, something to blow up everything keeping me down.”

The December night was cold. Peter and I were outside, him smoking, a porch light fending off scrubland dark: that’s all I remember. His staccato exposition was about that, whatever the exact words were: the need to move away for a big change.

I said something like: “I don’t know. There’s a lot right in front of you if you just see it. Take advantage of that. It’s expensive to head out. I get that now and I didn’t before. Maybe you should focus on TCJC.” Tarrant County Junior College (now TCC) was where everyone went, for a while.

I’m ashamed to have told him this. My path wasn’t his. I wasn’t in a place to see that, caught up as I was in being the hero of my own adolescence. But also, I might have sensed a big change would be too much for someone unable to hold an entry-level job for more than a couple months, who could not focus, who had no boundaries. Kindness and fractured intelligence don’t make up for a psychiatric issue. Maybe I thought I was protecting him.

After that cold night, I saw more of Peter. We would talk more–meaning, I asked a priming question and then listened as he went on–at gatherings, at hole-in-the-wall coffee-and-donut places, in parking lots between his band’s sets. By this time he had a dependable ride: a white Ranger pickup with a distinctive trapezoid camper top. We would sit in it as he puffed out the cracked window, smoke white in the blue night. The excitement (perhaps ridiculous) of being in some deserted mall parking lot while Peter smoked pot was unnerving, and wonderful. He lived at his mom’s house, just another post-war rectangle a few blocks from his elementary school and a few more blocks from the high school–everything the same.

After Christmas but before the next semester started, I spent several days with Peter. I remember them as accidental. Peter needed a ride, some help moving an amplifier, moving some furniture someone had given him. I pulled out of my parents’ attic the little desk of my elementary years and offered it to him. He was making a fresh start at TCJC and I wanted to encourage him. He was delighted. “Hey, man, thanks. I really, really appreciate this.” He was sincere, even more so given how ridiculous he looked squeezed behind the tiny thing, the borrowed kitchen table chair too big to fit underneath.

Afterwards, we walked around the combined community center, pool, parkland, and nature area. It was the city’s drop-off point for the season’s now-unwanted Christmas trees. Piles of them, streaming tinsel, made me unbearably sad. Peter walked with me–not sad exactly, but interested in seeing what I saw. Now, thirty-seven years later, I appreciate what a gift this was.

Peter's hand, December 1990

Peter’s hand, December 1990

We look out over the season's debris, December 1990

We look out over the season’s debris, December 1990

Maybe a dozen times over the year, Peter and I had late-night weekend talks. Peter’s intermittent TCJC studies gave him tons to talk about: more Maupassant, how Hemingway was a pussy, the early experiments the psychoanalytics made with psychoactives in attempts to better understand mental illness. This last was of great fascination for both of us: I remember the allure and terror, and respect that Peter had conducted such experiments himself. He did not seem to have retrieved any insights, but talked for hours about how psychoactives connected to Huxley, and then Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, Haight-Ashbury as “social remediation from all the big-dollar mind fuck”, and on and on.

At a long-gone Sound Warehouse, we perused the LPs and the considerable VHS music documentary section. I remember the warm halogen spotlights in contrast with the hard, fluorescent-lit LPs. It was warm there with Peter while he was a little more jazzed than even his amped-up usual. I persuaded him to get the Jethro Tull documentary. We watched it that same night at his mother’s house. No need to worry about being loud–I never met his absent mother aside from hi. Peter talked over the show, regurgitating volumes of music trivia, laughing at Tull’s live performance mistakes.

I think these pictures are from that night:

Peter and mom, December 1990

Peter and mom, December 1990

Peter's bedroom, December 1990

Peter’s bedroom, December 1990

I went home very late and did not feel alone.

In August of 1990, my father bought a car for me: a blue Honda Civic sedan, new. (At the time, I thought I would be buying it, but I never got a chance. I’m not sure I realized the windfall at the time. To show my gratitude, I kept it 23 years.) After growing up with and then driving Seventies-era and one 1982 American car, the step change from junk to Japanese has no words. The car may as well have been a spaceship. Starting it made no more noise than a rabbit’s sneeze, its air conditioning of mythic power, like out of Bradbury’s “Frost and Fire”.

Peter and I took no special trips in it. It was all weekend nights of driving around the old neighborhood, schools we’d gone to anchoring the corners, the world dark but for blue mercury streetlights and the aerospace dash, the air conditioning whispering as the little town dozed a hot sleep. Peter talked and talked. “Hey, man, this car’s old.” He laughed at how I bristled. He was grateful for me driving him wherever he was going. “All right, man, take care and we’ll see you on the flip side.”

Out of everything, those nights are the most Peter to me: headlights in the dark, him in the passenger seat laughing at his own jokes, my sense of shame held off a little while by new car smell and Peter.

1991 must have been busier, though I still saw Peter. I remember a night near that hambone golf course, where Peter observed again and again “this tree looks like a spade.” (Referring to a young cottonwood, he meant the tool, not the ethnic group.) 1992 could not have been much different, but I graduated college that year. The fall I counted down to graduate school in 1993, and have no memories of him. And then none until 2015.

I didn’t miss Peter. Maybe this is cheap and denies him a sincerity I owe him. Maybe, as I understand it now, we were the sorts of friends we could be for one another. That’s the best truth I have from twenty-four years in the future.

Peter was not headed for success as our society measures it, but he was no threat to it. He used drugs to self-medicate and experiment. If he could have bought them at the corner store, he’d have likely found some combination to calm him just enough to hold better jobs, maybe finish school. Peter’s crummy growing-up home life I learned about later: divorce, an older brother much more of a mess, mother absent and depressed, father just absent. I learned his father had some role in psychology and marveled that the father had not done anything to get Peter psychiatric help, at least that anybody knew. Peter was on his own, more or less.

In 2008 or so, I asked a mutual friend about Peter. The information was that Peter had lived with (or been in the care of) another mutual friend, until Peter’s inappropriate behavior became intolerable. Peter was kicked out. He had gone to New Orleans. There was no word of him after Katrina in 2005. He’d drowned, I supposed.

The news was like finishing a good but not fantastic book: the writer had done well and held my interest, but the book had come from the library–I hadn’t made the investment myself–and back it went. What else was there? It was too bad. Peter made me laugh. I was grateful, but he had been gone a long time.

Eight years later, Peter lived. Pictures proved it: Peter at a restaurant table with two mutual friends, the same hair, the same little eyes behind big glasses, the crooked smile with missing eye teeth filled in by a disliked bridge. He seemed small, a child at the big table. His smile was tight-lipped.

When I saw him in October 2015, I was struck by how unchanged he was. His movements were less jerky, but they were the same ones. His more mellow patter flowed unabated. To those who had participated in a long-ago video project he had directed, he presented T-shirts. Before and after, he performed on guitar.

Peter Netherland, October 2015

Peter Netherland, October 2015

He pigeonholed me later, his one-sided conversation pouring out arcana I don’t remember. He was happy. For someone who’d lived on spare change, he looked good.

I was happy to see him, glad he was alive, but he was so unchanged meeting him was dreamlike. I gave him my phone number with reluctance. I didn’t want any long and aimless phone calls, but I hope I didn’t show this. For what I can remember, his enthusiasm never dimmed.

Later, I would be told how Peter had moved beyond youth. He held the same starter jobs, but he held them. He was saving money, paying things back. He did not smoke, drink, or do anything stronger. He was getting it together, making amends, supporting others. He had overcome it all to return, if not to a home he never had, to an equivalent goodness. The friend that found him repeated: he’s doing way better.

After leaving, my Canadian girlfriend admitted she’d hardly understood what anyone said, given the accents. “Just like me thirty years ago,” I said. “But I can understand now.” Then we flew home.

A few months later, Peter was killed by a single shot to the back, fired by his brother, apparently during an argument.

I’ve been told that the mind can be a dangerous place, and so to never go in there alone. Call your sponsor, call your therapist, call whoever you need to call. You can even call me. If you’re giving yourself those signals, give yourself that permission.

It’s good advice. The fire alarm is comforting hanging there on the wall, advertising trust. I’ve never pulled it at 2 a.m., but that’s because I’ve known it’s there.

Even though I’m not sad about it, even though I’m not ashamed that I’m not sad, I wish Peter had pulled something for himself and gotten out of there and back to some place clean and bright and possibly lonely but at least whole, with a dogeared edition of Maupassant and his guitar.

The Western Place, Burleson, Texas (Image: NBCDFW.com)

The Western Place, Burleson, Texas (Image: NBCDFW.com)

I met Lauren in seventh grade band. She played clarinet, while dithering and pressure assigned me the oboe. We squawked and honked our way through the autumn of 1982, our noise sealed inside an auditorium’s flaky acoustic tile. I never got the oboe to make a noise other than a garbage truck crushing geese.

Oboes sat center front, in the band’s first concentric crescent, just in front of the conductor. Hordes of clarinets were to one side, flutes the other, neither producing much more than a whisper. Lauren sat in that first row, her paleness, her hurricane of curly red hair, and her thick tortoise-shell glasses impossible to miss. She smiled, and she laughed, showing all her teeth. I thought she looked like the cartoon Shamu appearing on commercials. Hey, when you smile, you look like Shamu. I had no intention of being mean. The Awkward Age was upon us all.

I didn’t talk much. Middle school was a shock: bells, rush, adults having decided we were not quite criminals, everyone scowling and mean. My plan’s wisdom was confirmed by the snarls from the first-row girls–except for Lauren. Lauren was silly, sure, but never mean.

I don’t remember what got us to talk, but she quizzed my New Wave knowledge, which was zero. She made elaborate mini-posters on notebook paper: hearts and stars around “Toto”. I responded with blocky notes of “Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops”. I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t get it. She laughed, choppers flashing white. She thought I was funny.

It never occurred to me we could be friends. Friendship was shifting so radically I wasn’t sure what that could mean. Her husky deadpan ended in breathless laughs.

Like all true dorks, I became an audio-visual assistant. Aside from wheeling projectors around, the position afforded passage to the A/V Room. An oversize closet within the forbidden faculty area, it was doubly shielded from bullies and screeching. I could hide out during lunch and watch Star Trek episodes taped off TV. Pathos aside, it was a respite.

Lauren became an A/V assistant. Her early Eighties glam Swatch fashion clashed with the drab equipment: multiple Swatch watches, Guess jeans, switched coins in her penny loafers. Why she wanted to associate with fashionless rejects was a mystery.

“What would happen if I let this go?”

Lauren had a 16mm film reel poised on a table’s edge, her freckled hands just keeping it from rolling off. (I’d forgotten this entirely. She reminded me the night I saw Peter again.)

Eighth grade started wrong. Mono clobbered me so hard I missed the first weeks of school, and I was pressured to catch up. I was threatened on the bus and in hallways, had my locker door slammed shut by someone bigger hissing faggot. My hands shook so badly teachers complained about my handwriting. Whether my lack of appetite and vomiting was from Epstein-Barr or nerves, I don’t know. But in the A/V Room, this girl threatening to loose a film reel did not compute. I couldn’t see, or denied, that she wanted to play.

“It would unroll on the floor and get scratched up, and I’d have to roll it back up.”

Along with my flat response, I remember little of my inner life: fatigue, confusion, annoyance. Secret protocols of what could be said to girls, and how and when, were in play: rangy boys delivered threats about talking to “their” girls the wrong way. (I once said something like: “She’s yours? Did you buy her off the classifieds?” I learned to choose my audience carefully.) I probably thought it was a setup.

She laughed. That’s all I remember.

High school was better. She dropped band while I persisted. Bullies lost interest; I kept quiet. Algebra II was comprehensible even after struggling with Algebra I. Lauren and I continued to share accelerated classes.

We never talked much, but there were moments when something would spill over and we connected: some quip about a pop figure, or a crisp observation of a classmate. She remains the sole female human I know who likes The Blues Brothers. I love that movie. I watched a copy so much the tape wore down. When other girls groaned en masse at my adoration, Lauren alone smiled: “I love where they drive through the mall.”

For a minute–hours of adult time–we rehearsed the movie. This don’t look like no expressway to me! Do you see the light? What light? We’re on a mission from God. She smiled and laughed her husky laugh, and then it was class again.

Once, she came to school drunk. I remember my amazement: you can do that? I’d been around drinking, even what the TV hysterions would later label “binge drinking”. It bothered me, but understood it as a cheap thrill. Only much later did I learn of all the fellow students dealing with beatings or neglect on the hard end, arguments and mental mind-twisting on the softer end. Moralizing adults and I didn’t understand kids drank for the same reasons anybody drinks.

After whispers, the incident faded. Outside of school, when it coincided for us to be at the same absent adult’s house, she drank with abandon. I remember a photograph snapped in that era of bygone innocence: Lauren sagging in a closet, passed out. In retrospect, I’m glad she decided to indulge at such places, where she had protection and someone to keep her airway clear.

She found a beady-eyed boyfriend who only cared about money, and all her attention went to him.

I left high school my junior year and did not see her again. I learned she went to a rich university. From 1990 to 1993, I worked as a photographer at that university’s Greek parties, and though I later learned she belonged to one of our better-lubricated client sororities, I never saw her.

Sometime in 1993, we had a phone call. She was happy to hear from me. I was surprised she was at her parents’ house, college graduate going places and all. At the end, she said: “Call anytime. I’ll be here.” Her voice dropped with here.

Ten years passed before we spoke again. On an overnight job, we shared some emails. She was married and working a middle management job, still living in the little town, her written voice still crisp with intelligence and fatal humor.

I saw her in the fall of 2005, when I last drove cross-country. I had a list of people to see. I was driven by a need to apologize, though I’m not sure what for. I think I believed I had missed something, like all those outed secrets I never picked up on, and wanted to make amends for being so thick. I’m not from here. I couldn’t read the subtext.

Lauren lived in one of the tract-made McHouses that undergird suburban America, and have become raison d’etre for our high school town. At last revived from the coma of the early Eighties oil crash, the town had metastasized indistinguishable houses and strip centers and gas stations along every axis of the Texas flat, all beaming with fluorescent emptiness. Her house was standard Texas brick-box roofed with a clownish peak, but tidy, open and welcoming inside. It was not crammed or empty, the furniture solid and clean, the colors muted, everything well-matched. She was unchanged. In good spirits, she was happy to show off her home and her husband–a smiling plank of Latino who liked to drink too. They were a weird match–him tall, dark-haired and softly chiseled to her softer explosion of red and freckles–but they liked each other well enough, and the purpose of their drinking did not seem to be the blurring of each others’ edges. On a first-name basis at the chain steakhouse bar, we talked about cars and school and now. She was clingy with him.

One night the three of us went to one of the town’s original freeway bars, a faded sheet-metal barn just over the county line. The town’s home county was dry, but its northern neighbor allowed liquor, and thus bars and drive-through booze stores (there are such things) clustered just over the line. Since my eight-year-old arrival in 1978, the glowing yellow smiley-face of The Western Place rose above the freeway’s flat. There’s no counting how many times I drove by it. I considered it unfinished business, and now, at last, we went in.

Outside, the blackness roared with horsepower spilling over the freeway. Inside was a different world, neon wash and simple tables that could have come from the Sears catalog. A girl off her teenage bloom gave our IDs a disinterested once-over and we were among the jeans and boots. Recorded music played as we sat. We got some looks, and the waitress had little interest in three people obviously slumming. Then the discomfort was comfortable. Then it went away.

I don’t remember what we talked about, but I remember. This–the beery air, the soft light brighter than sophisticates would tolerate, the nearness of others in their knots as they waited for something to happen, around a table with a woman I’ve not really known but who had been a friendly touchstone since seventh grade and her tall husband, my Sprite to their potable gasoline–it was the heart of something. She still had her Shamu laugh. So this is why people like bars! We were sharing something of the past but on its other side, a thing here and now of light and music with the metal walls holding the world at bay. I was happy to be there.

Her husband thought the drinks were weak and we left after twenty minutes.

The years following brought intermittent messages. She got a job teaching. The marriage soured. Her drinking increased to the point of reprimands at work. She checked herself into a psychiatric hospital.

Late one night, she sent a message: Are you there? I really need to talk to somebody. The directness shocked me. Yes, I’m up. I can talk. I waited. It was ten for me, midnight for her. Then midnight for me. Then later. My fear gave way to annoyance. I went to bed. When I woke, there was a message. My dad was up. Going to work.

The exchange rankled me. I’d ended relationships to escape B-movie histrionics and had no interest in revisiting them, even at a remove. On Facebook she trumpeted her borderline diagnosis, posted Sylvia Plath poems, made obvious hints at self-harm. I didn’t answer her next late-night need to talk, and the next morning she was fine, she said. I wondered what my place was, went through questions of selfishness, obligation. Then I contacted someone. Lauren was checked in on. She was fine, though she was not.

We had sporadic and self-limiting talks. She found a compatible psychiatrist. I tried to encourage her without patronizing, and probably failed. Her humor maintained: she wrote about a student, after doing poorly on a test, announcing, “I need a whiskey.” She sent me a long diatribe about her husband, who had moved out.

I remember making a decision. At the other end of divorce and therapy and scaring myself clean, I at last accepted something: you can’t lecture people into walking away from their demons.

I admit something else: I sympathized with the husband. I cringed reading her last message, full of circular grievance. I had enough of that in my own marriage.

She improved, or appeared to. Messages resumed and were brief and encouraging, sometimes jokes: We finally have a pho place! There’s somewhere that has no pho place?

When she complained about the small town and her limited life, my tongue loosed. You have no reason to stay. You can get a divorce. You can sell the house, sell everything. Live on the beach, in the mountains. Move to New York. To Paris! You really can. She needed to stay to take care of her dad. He was healthy.

Another admission: I lost interest. I had been stuck too long in my own wallowing. I didn’t want to be around someone determined to dig their hole deeper, even if that was only a Facebook message a week. She had a suite of mental health professionals, a purposeful job, friends close by. They could help her better. She checked herself in again. I saw that as avoidance, or wanting attention.

On November 1, 2016, I received a text message: We have lost Lauren. It was early after not sleeping well, and even with scratchy thoughts I didn’t need it spelled out. I did not gasp or freeze. I felt no shock or grief. Traffic roared outside, and the radio chatted downstairs. Windows framed a grey sky and trees newly naked. I remember a great pause. Soft crackling moved through me, and then relief, then a rueful disgust: not at her, not at all, but at whatever human flaw we have that drives us to indulge self-destruction. I sighed. I thought something like: well, she’s not moving now.

Struggling with how bad I should feel about myself for lack of grief comes and goes. How petty to dismiss someone’s struggle, no matter how made-up I think it is. From the far-away outside, all her problems seemed blown out of proportion. Still, can I show no sympathy? I’ve had sucky times and needed help. Can I not allow she had suffered some injury–some series of serious injuries, as almost all the women I know have–that were finally too much when the last support beneath her fell away?

Calls came. I wasn’t upset. I realize now this could be what it may feel like to be the old grandfather: seen it all, can sympathize, can listen for the place where the right joke goes and smart enough to not jump in the deep end.

As days passed, my annoyance turned to something like what I imagine parents of adolescent children experience. My lecture is relentless. Why are you torturing yourself? If the marriage isn’t working, get a divorce. Get a new job. Go somewhere, do cabaret. Anybody who tells you to torture yourself is someone who needs getting away from for good. 

Borderline personality disorder, says the literature, is characterized by unstable relationships, unstable identity, fear of abandonment, and self-harm. About 80% of sufferers are able to put it behind them, given the right therapy. About 10% commit suicide. No doubt her doctors knew all this, and knew that borderlines resist treatment and are quick to disappear. Maybe they were proceeding with caution to not scare her off. Keep working, keep finding value in what you do, because there is. 

Should I have talked to her more? I don’t know. When I offered to talk about my own experiences with those cruel mirrors, she didn’t answer. I can sympathize with her being tired of that conversation, fifty minutes and a copay a week.

People seemed to expect me at the funeral, which surprised me: I was far away and had never known her well. The funeral was a full-on Old Christian extravaganza: hours of kneeling. I’m told the parents were crushed, enervated. I imagine their wrung looks, limp handshakes. Maybe this was not a surprise.

I learned that Lauren had a fractious home life growing up. While doting on her father, she had disowned her mother as much as she could living in the same town. Mother and an older sister had always looked down her, relentlessly criticized and undercut her. I don’t doubt it. Family can be a crucible.

It’s too bad. That prosaic thought is the one that comes up, staring like an empty can. I know what it’s like to feel the night yawn open and the silence pour down. But in the end, I got the right medicine, medicine in the Native American mystic sense. Things were dealt with, or faded, or walked away from. It must be hard to walk away from things when you share a little town.

Hard morning

Hard morning

I wrote that this essay is about two people, but in the act of memory I excavated a third: a tall, pale, denim-clad and thin-lipped band kid I knew as CJ. He is alive, as far as I know.

School mornings, the student parking lot slowly filled with beaters. Given the mid-Eightes era, these were mostly American heaps, paint faded and vital fluids dripping, mechanical soundness assured by fathers and uncles. This was Texas, so there were pickup trucks.

CJ had a typical one: a Ford, I think, the standard two-tone white plus yellow, or maybe faded brown, high off the ground, the chrome mostly pits. A mid-Sixties monster, it was loud but not modified to be so, running as smoothly as the worn mechanicals allowed. A country kid through and through, CJ took pride in its durable rust.

Mornings, CJ swept his truck in a wide arc, coming to rest in his student lot space like a great ship nestling in its berth. A few of us had gathered and he nodded, smiling, rolling down the window to let the radio out. Over the AM crackle, Paul Harvey flickered out to the mulberry trees and dented chainlink fence. We listened: me, a friend, kids from band, kids in metal-band concert shirts, kids in their blue corduroy Future Farmers of America jackets with their names chain-stitched in yellow. No one spoke. We looked down at the cracked asphalt, or out at the little houses compressed by sky.

Paul Harvey….Good Day?

Harvey’s piece said, CJ turned the key on the local DJ chatter and everyone stirred. A few smiled. There was a sense of relief. It was a little easier to face school now, not because of Harvey’s pablum, but because those of us who needed quiet togetherness had gotten it. Big and affable CJ had given it.

A year ago, a mutual friend reported running into CJ. Their talk was brief. CJ looked battered. Life had been hard. There was no sense that it would change.

I like to think I would have offered CJ something. Whatever cash I had on me, or to share a substantial meal–anything not patronizing. Aside from those parking lot mornings, I didn’t know CJ at all, but he gave me something then of great substance, even if it was invisible, even if it had no name.

Rodney Dangerfield and Robin Williams, ca. 1980

Rodney Dangerfield and Robin Williams, ca. 1980

Talking with Marc Maron, Robin Williams shared a story. He was at Rodney Dangerfield’s club, and Dangerfield was sweating buckets. Jeez, I’m sweating, I’m sweating! Rodney Dangerfield is nervous about going on in his own club. Williams tells him to calm down. It’s all right. You’ve got the gig. 

Peter and Lauren did not have the gig. Peter bounced from home to job to place to band, never able to root himself. Lauren had a softer life than Peter, but not an easier one. CJ’s life was hard. All were kind. For all the indignity chance or neurology threw at them, they lived, and I knew them.

I’ve never known what my gig is. Equal parts not wanting to limit myself, to defy convention, and acting out of fear have put me in this place. It has taken many years, but I have redefined it as a good place. I have somewhere clean to go, with a warm bed and a full pantry. I have all the things American consumerist society expects a person deemed successful to have, more or less, but it is not those things that make my place good. The best good I can think of is knowing that all these things are ephemera. Some calamity is out there itching to take it away. Or there isn’t. Beyond all that, the best thing is the people I have known, however it was I knew them, and what we did for each other, as tentative and incomplete as it often was.

Answers no longer interest me. Any meaningful answer is the entry to a bigger question. What is the question? Look up or look down. Wherever you look, it’s worlds without end.

Leave a comment

Ralph’s: More Than Pretty Good

Posted: The End

Posted: The End

Bernie Sanders is in town. A week before, he filled Key Arena and thousands are left outside by the Seattle Center fountain to watch the stump speech on a portable Jumbotron. A week later he returns, this time to the five-times larger Safeco Field, where the line creeps down Fourth Avenue. I wait two hours. At the end, I watch a tiny wild-haired blur speak from a distant home plate. A group of young drunks makes tasteless jokes and talk on their phones in front of me. I can only surmise they have mistaken a political rally for a baseball game. When the crowd cheers, one of the girls falls over, laughing.

Sanders at Safeco

Sanders at Safeco

Five dollar Polish dogs have not filled me up. Bars and sports kitch do not appeal to me, so I ride the subway up a few streets to Belltown. Upscale food commingles with dive bars and cupcake places. The cupcakes here are not so good, so a candy bar is plenty. North of the soulless Bartell drugstore, the monorail snakes through Belltown. There’s a little grocery store there across the street from a park popular with the homeless, which irony puts diagonally across from The Warwick, a tony hotel. Ralph’s always makes me happy.

Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery was a fixture of Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon. Back in the distant past when I listened to Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion and read his books, I didn’t realize how unusual it was for an adolescent to find New Yorker style humor understandable, much less at all funny. The joke for Ralph’s was: “If you can’t find it at Ralph’s, you can probably get along without it.” It wasn’t fall-down funny, and I didn’t know any Minnesotans or Norwegians yet, but I understood that self-denial-as-virtue that comes from poverty and provincialism. Stores like Ralph’s–the tiny, overpriced selection dwarfed by shelves of mostly empty space, all inventory in counts of two, as if the ketchup and tissue boxes had emerged from a low-rent Ark–are everywhere, on county road intersections and grey cinderblock neighborhoods, in America and everywhere else. It’s always been there and always will be, never getting worse and never getting better. It’s the place you go when your car uses too much gas to go anywhere else. We are respectable people, say the lines in the hard faces that patronize these wheezing outposts. We work hard and hold our heads high, all right with the Lord. We do not walk. 

Growing up in suburban-rural Texas, I knew of Karyn’s at one end of one county road, and Bennett’s where a larger, more-potholed county road intersected another at a bowed Y. Both had gasoline pumps and an air hose for pumping up bicycle tires; neither was safe to approach via bicycle, but there was no other way. By bicycle, my two friends and I could trace elaborate circuits through suburban cul de sacs, thin tar-and-chip county tracks, private driveways and holes in fences, coming around back ways that were survivable. At the end of a sixth- or seventh-grade day, Karyn’s offered whatever candy or sugary drink that could be had with leftover lunch money. Jason turned me on to YooHoos. He, Paul and I leaned on our bikes underneath a sprawling oak tree, sampling the chocolate cold, divining the label’s secrets. Karyn’s was dark with worn-out paneling, shiny with drink coolers, and musty like mud gone dry. It was work to get to, but its run-down escape paid off. Bennett’s was a bigger prize attempted only during summers. It required planning, perseverance, and a willingness to take one’s life in one’s hands.

Keillor’s fictional Ralph’s had more dignity than these two hovels. Its churchy decay bespoke the reverence of people’s hardship. But the two hovels were real places my friends and I could go to. To go anywhere from nowhere was a privilege.

The end is made apparent

The end is made apparent

From the wrong way–crossing over from Third on Bell, and heading south–the Ralph’s marquee looms in unfamiliar shadow. What should be illuminated in green and purple–the green logo and purple bunch of grapes–is dark against the Cinerama’s powerful glow. I stand on the corner of Lenora and Fourth, noting people walking past what looks to be an oddly lit store interior. Signs are in the windows.

At the locked door, I read the papers taped to the glass and feel the smallest punch in my gut. For a moment, there is a little less air in the world. Some other ocean of time freezes while everyone walks past, the city giggling. I’m hardly weeping, not even sad, if “sad” is to have meaning. I’ve learned something personal that everyone else knew months ago.

Ralph's, a shell

Ralph’s, a shell

The guy playing the guitar sings a Dylan song and nods at me without interrupting himself. He doesn’t ask for money, but he smiles. Maybe I look pained. I wanted a candy bar but I got bad news. Ralph’s closed in December.

Ralph's interior

Ralph’s interior

December 1997 brings a lucky break. An agency calls with a video editor job: a game studio is shorthanded and deadlines loom. It’s my first real Seattle job, having struck out in Seattle dot-com frenzy since summer. Weird hours and a revolving door of people complicate things, but it’s a real job, with Hollywood types, and it pays. X-Files is the game.

The studio was located two blocks up from Ralph’s. I first went to Ralph’s with some of the main studio players–Paul, who remains a good friend, and Cassandra. Cassandra, the head artist, was an is a stunning beauty. The first afternoon there I buy a Snickers. She eyes me and it down her long aquiline nose. “That’s healthy.” She doesn’t speak to me for months. (She much later comes out as a punk rocker type, and we get along fine.) Despite my disorientation, my bad marriage, my dismissal by yet another attractive woman, Ralph’s shines out. I have Arrived.

Where the tables were

Where the tables were

Every workday until October 13, 1999–when, the game complete, we last four are laid off–I walk past Ralph’s. I get sandwiches there, made fresh on a grill. You can buy fifty dollar wine and fancy mushrooms and Theo chocolate. There is the plain stuff too, and Ben & Jerry’s. I didn’t spend much at Ralph’s, but it was always there, and I took great solace in its dependable green glow, warm lights, rich smells. Taking a break from screens, a 2 a.m. two-block walk to check in with other night owls cemented me to the wonder of the real.

The new millennium put me on the other side of Lake Washington, at Microsoft, the belly of the beast itself. I missed the camaraderie and the sense of working a job in line with who I felt I was. I missed the city and I missed Ralph’s. I wasn’t in New York yet, but Belltown and Ralph’s made it seem possible to get there. Things were looking up.

Storied history on the door

Storied history on the door

Since then, every travel through Belltown had Ralph’s as a signpost: I was there. I am here. I know this place. I met friends there, stopped there after interviewing for jobs, had a date there. When Cinerama reopened, it was a great place to get a good meal and buy candy to sneak in. It was beautiful the way a bolt is, or a pencil. The perfected needs no more work. Pencils and bolts persist with us, their utility too strong to go without. Ralph’s has succumbed to market instability, says the Seattle Times story taped to the door glass. Another way to say this: some things can be too good.

Transmission shop no more

Transmission shop no more

Other things are going too, succumbing to a wave of Chinese investment. Above, an old transmission shop, part of Seattle’s dumpy gritty past, is now a hole that will become condominiums. I walked past this for years too, wondering how a transmission shop could survive downtown. Why isn’t there a real building here? Soon, there will be.

Spitfire spits fire

Spitfire spits fire

The Spitfire has taken over from The Sit & Spin. A bar-laundromat was an idea whose time had been coming, and had come by 1997. I loved watching hipsters stare at their tumbling undies, old-style giant TVs with tubes in them hanging from massive ceiling-bolted cranes. Its change machines were lifesavers for me: every day exchanging a few dollars for quarters to feed the meter. (My hours were too squirrely to assure a bus ride home.) I don’t remember the food, and I don’t drink, but I remember resting there one Friday afternoon with workmates, floating in blue glow and the scent of soap. The Sit and Spin was demolished in the mid-2000s, replaced with a condo tower. The Spitfire is a forgettable sports bar, its great screens no compensation for terrible food.

Consistent glow

Consistent glow

Yuki’s Diffusion is unchanged from 1997, as is the Security House building where I worked. I imagine the salon as some mobster’s tax dodge, its chairs always empty, attractive Asian women reading magazines on their high high heels. The sign blinks in rhythm, like a 1980s movie about the dark future. This is comforting in a small safe way, like a bento box that protects not food but era.

I am not one to bemoan things passing. I roll my eyes at the typical Seattle greybeard, his ponytail wrenched in a violated bunch as his favorite falling-down single-story asbestos-clogged faulty-wired dump that was a bar-restaurant-dive-library-dive-apartment-bookstore-dive-honkytonk-dive-disco-dive-artspace-theatre-dive-dive-dive has failed in its drive to be recognized as “historic” and will soon feed bulldozers. Great! I say. Can’t happen fast enough. To all the hipsters that complain about soullessness, I counter with ratless, bugless, energy-efficient and earthquake-compliant straight lines and windows that close. Amazingly, the once and future rents are comparable. Those Chinese make a good building.

I don’t mourn Ralph’s going. It is not 1997, 1999, 2001, or any of those former years. They belong to the past now, and that is as right as you and be being in the present, facing forward, moving ahead. Nothing lasts forever and there is no arguing, even as we may be confused as to what or who has changed. Perspective takes a while in coming, and once attained, is one more thing to let go.

Moon

Moon

Seattle Times: Saying Goodbye to Beloved Ralph’s Grocery

 

Leave a comment

You Are Not Alone, Again

Explanation

Explanation

Why be uncertain? Someone has gone before you. Even imagined time is real enough.

Leave a comment

Tropics and the Surreal

The Sun is near

Fury near and far

Time flows in syrup, passing through reed walls on bug legs. Humidity grounds the air to the ocean. Greens glow with the calls of strange birds who speak a sense only they know. Human things merge into the natural world, all the flowers and rocks ignorant of the tiny blip of time in which our things exist before there’s just the ocean again.

This is winter

This is winter

Hawaii 1.0 was the summer of 2011, which I spent in Hilo, on the Big Island. This blog was created to document that, and give Monkey something to do. Hawaii 2.0 is four years later, a month on urban Oahu. Things are different: I have a companion, a healthier journey, a finished rough draft of a novel that’s taken 25 years to write. I have more drafts to go, but first there is a break in the tropics. We both need to get away from things for a while, even if my things are just wondering what to do next and a cat.

Searching

Searching

Another travelogue is of no value. Tales of talking to God on mountaintops bore people. I want to write a few things, but not like Hawaii 1.0: I don’t have guilt and terror to vomit out, then wonder at the mess and what can be made of it. Hawaii 2.0 has no burden; at least, that is the intention. Disappearing into the most urban island’s rural reaches for a month is the sort of disconnection that is certain of reconnection. There is no terror of disconnecting and not knowing what comes next.

Not washed away

Not washed away

We stay at a dump. It is expensive, but cheap as these things go. This is Hawaii: a hundred bucks a night for sewery smells and a worn-out mattress, but right on the beach. We adjust. Surf rolls in thirty yards beyond the front door. Down the beach, superior-air white guys launch SeaDoos into the roaring North Shore. People come and go, always different. There is a neighborhood dog that always wants to splash in the waves. The water runs every scale of green to blue.

We hike, we lie on the beach, we swim. We check out Honolulu, which seems more urbane than frumpy, reluctant-to-modernize Seattle. Near Waikiki Beach, a Japanese woman rushes up to me, her stubby finger jabbing a brochure. Meeyah meeyah, I think she says. She grabs my hand. Meyeah meeyah! We are walking around the part of town with old palaces and government buildings, leftovers from Hawaii’s Republic days. A shrunken old Japanese man sidles up to the woman, looking tired and satisfied. Meeyah meyeah! This is strange behavior for a Japanese tourist, their usual ambit to huddle in silent groups and gawk from a safe distance. “Oh!” We realize together she likely means Kamehameha, Hawaii’s first king and uniter of the islands. “Kamehameha. There. There!” I point down the block to the great man’s garish statue. Oh! Yah yah yah! A rapid exchange between the two, with laughter. Domo, domo! They move on. Light is everywhere.

Weekend tailor

Weekend tailor is glad to see you

So goes travel’s mundane adventures: small moments where exceptions rise up, even more visible when you are somewhere new.

More important are the things I cannot see.

Luna

Luna

A Draft Out of Time

Costco is in Hawaii, a boon to the state’s traditionally high cost of living. We make a stop in the first few days, loading up on groceries hard to get on Oahu’s north end. Inside the dim warehouse, I fall through years to a different place and time: August of 1978, 1979, 1980, the last days before elementary school. Whether it is the tanned skin shades, the temperature, the bright light, the humidity and heat, I can’t say, but walking with purpose through the 2016 aisles I have an overpowering sense of being with my mother in the Mott’s 5-and-10 store, confused by the need to buy lined notebook paper and pencils. They’re at the front of class. You just walk up and get what you need. My mother, driven by her teacher nature to satisfy the school supply list for her own child, is dismissive. Texas isn’t Ontario. I remember the fusty store’s moldy air conditioning and crammed shelves: erasers, glowing pastel bottles of bubble-blowing soap, dolls, balls of twine, toys in cellophane boxes. Light lost its power through the plate glass windows. My mom buys in bulk as she compares ads, going from grocery store to discount store such as is available in Burleson, Texas, when the only places to eat are fast food and Blue Laws shut things up on Sunday.

Back to school transmits up the Costco steel racks, the air broadcasting excitement and dread. 2016 has no hold on this message from the wrong time. I look at giant bags of rice or a pallet of toilet paper and feel, in my shorts and threadbare shirt, that even the most certain world is transient. Past and future merge and coil in and out of one another in ways we can sometimes see.

Color of the sea

Color of the sea

World of Inner Night

Hawaii 2.0 is exhausting. We are asleep before eight and have trouble rousing before ten. Is it the heat, the sea’s roar, the powerful light that disappears every evening at six? A week on and we’re just beginning to adjust to HST, where we are two hours behind home.

Maybe it’s the bed. Age and use have rendered the mattress a hammock: the center a deep valley, the edges providing the only support. A cheap frame rolls around in the narrow slot given to the bed. We climb over the foot to go to sleep, watching the white surf tumble beyond the screen door.

Sleep is exhausting: tough to enter, harder to maintain. The first nights are dead black punctuated by abrupt waking, disorientation and a sense of falling, stumbling to the odd trapezoid bathroom, and dead black again.

Dead black is only a membrane over a roiling foam of terrors. Intense to the point of physical discomfort, the dreams are the kind beyond nightmare, indistinguishable from waking reality. Forgetting, or some other protective mechanism, lets me only recall vague outlines now: looming stone forests, hospitals with golem staff, men with guns and smiles. I wake up in the dead black and do not know where I am. Sometimes, not who I am. Sometimes, not what.

Night has broken loose and wandered back to the stark fear of early childhood, no light bright enough, no comfort soothing enough, nothing to be done but freeze the scream inside. Roars–of machines, of thunder, of flame–deafen all sense. There is nothing to write about because thought is not possible.

Not since I was four or five years old have I had such terrors. I still remember those kindergarten nights of dark shapes, paralysis, hot liquid in my chest, every shadow a claw.

Nobody has a name in this place.

Morning comes too early and bright for January, but takes an age to filter in. Walls are not straight, the floor not solid. Everything swoons. Stiff steps and I remember: I am human. Humans have legs and walk. I am forty-five years old and away from home, on vacation. Vacations are fun. Open the shade, look at the clock, and the logical world drips in like rain.

Walking a golden beach with water surging from azure to emerald and jade, the waking world is solid, but I am not sure why. By afternoon, it is summer again–summer in January. I am never afraid to go back to sleep.

Our common problem

Our common problem

Doubt Grows Up

Weeks go on. The night terrors stop. Not that I miss them, but their absence leaves a strange loss. It’s like missing a lifelong injury that’s finally healed, pain’s absence a hollow. We go on hikes through jungle out of 1980s Vietnam War movies, signs illegible when there are signs. Beaches we like are on the opposite side of Oahu from our rented place, so we take country drives over, marveling at the cliffs. We get up to a half-mile swim a day, out to a moored and floating ball and back. Voices of duty and purpose are confused: what appointment is next? do I need to pay something? how is the cat? Nothing like Monkey, their energy drains away. Oahu isn’t as desolate as the Big Island was, and the thoughts just go quiet instead of leave a desolate ring.

For the first weeks I make notes on the novel rough draft I’ve finished. They’re good flashes of insight on how to make characters more complex, giving them deeper roots to stand on when they reappear later. Personalities grow richer with idiosyncrasies: a military man always has paperwork he carries around and never finishes; a non-human character always sleeps curled in a tight ball, legs caging his face. Is he insecure, his inner child showing? Ooh, that’s a fun riddle to not spell out. Things click.

I had planned to read and make notes on my rough draft, as I hadn’t finished before departure. The condo does not have WiFi as promised, and I don’t want to spend my time in a Starbucks or library, so I let this go. I brought books I don’t read.

By the second week, the ideas stop. Questions begin nibbling. Should I be writing now? Will it get stale? I’m forgetting. At night, at stoplights, staring at clouds, the questions penetrate. Is this any good? How much longer will this take? How many more drafts? Should I get a job? I’m tired. I don’t care. Nobody else will either. 

I don’t feel sullen; I don’t lash out or sulk. I enjoy swimming and hiking and checking out the hick burger places. Being off is letting go of all this, but I know it is still there when I go back.

Is it worth doing? Will anybody care? Yes, the answer comes, some days. Other days, there’s no answer, and I feel tired. Is this rejuvenation?

By the third week, sleep comes like a two-by-four.

Look dead center

Look dead center

Back to the Main Land

Our condo features a TV so old it has a tube, crammed in a high shelf. HD video is letterboxed with the left and right cut off; blocky green numerals glow out when we change the channel. After an exhausting day, part of the retreat relief is making dinner on the hot plate and flipping through channels we hear about but never watch.

TLC, now decades past any meaningful relationship to The Learning Channel, features hours of carnival freak show. People whose untreated psychiatric problems have allowed their eating themselves into landbound whales whine and struggle as they try to lose enough weight to be candidates for weight loss surgeries. Other hour-long voyeurisms follow former whales who have lost hundreds of pounds and are now plagued by deflated sails of skin hanging from their limbs and torsos, a constant reminder they once inflated this dead mass. The same plastic surgeons are featured in both shows, inflating guts with nitrogen to sew up stomachs or excising twenty or thirty pounds of distended skin. We watch these shows with the kind of entranced revulsion the media companies bank on. The shows are gross enough to almost repulse, but fascinating enough to endure 25 minutes of repeated commercials per hour. Sameness defines both show and ads. The shows are a redemption story, the hapless victims of their own maladaptive thoughts saved by doctors operating out of posh clinics or strip-mall storefronts. Half the commercials are for junk food.

I have never been overweight, but my girlfriend has. We talk as the shows go on, and before and after: the emotional landscape that creates the weight gain, the struggle to lose it, the incessant negative body messaging that starts early and is especially vicious for girls and women. Slights and backhanded compliments permeate school, work, family, friends. It’s easy to believe them as the truth, so easy we build the foundations to make them true. “You eat your feelings.” It’s easy to do: as much ice cream and pizza as you want, twenty-four hours a day.

Movies cut-for-TV are our other evening fare. Watching them makes me realize how bad TV is, and how peeping in on trashy super-fat people is doing something to me. I don’t know what, exactly, but it can’t be good for me. Unspoken, we cut back on the morbidly obese. On the last week, we watch very little. I read aloud from her book about recovering from narcissistic parents, and we talk about that.

Cool breeze comes down the cliffs, through a rusted window, and out the screen door, down the beach, to the waves, carrying things away.

Summer now

Summer now

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016, rewinds. Everything unpacked is packed away again, the food we ate replaced with coffee and chocolate. The condo is checked and rechecked, the door locked, the beach walked one last walk. New blindingly white people tromp the sand. Our neighborhood dog friend is not out. There will be no goodbyes. We exit the gate, turn down the narrow lane, and head south, the parade of beaches and turnouts familiar now.

Return

Return

Return hung in the future in a way it did not as a child. Now I understand there is a going back, that things end, and that ends and beginnings are defined by which way you face the same event. Four years ago–the length of time it takes to get a college degree–I had a different purpose here. I’m still not sure what it was, but the work was hard, and the reward is solid. Today the reward I cannot know, but it feels better. Exciting things lie ahead, assembled bit by bit.

We land in cold and dark, the February we know, dark freeways busy. That night, in my own bed, I have another terror. All is void, nothing to push against. Waking has no distinction: just as black, temperature nonsense, up meaningless. For long minutes, I have no identity. I’m not exaggerating. I don’t know what I am.

I don’t know how I get myself back. A sliver of streetlight under the blind? The garbage truck flotilla always early up the street? I remember a triangle of blue-grey light outlining the door, which makes one black void a wall, another the wall by the bed. There is a strange warm lump: the cat, who never sleeps with us, is sleeping with us. Instead of sulking or peeing on our shoes, he is happy we are back. I get up and go to the bathroom: my bathroom in my house. I have lived here four years, but it is strange again now, like the first year I moved in when the thousand square feet enough to get lost in. I wash my face. For the first time in a month, it rinses clean.

The first full day back is strange, as if seen from inside a ghost. The repacked things go to their permanent homes, many placed in different piles for washing. For the first time, I use my laundry’s Sanitize settings, and Hawaii’s fungal stink is driven from our clothes. I go through a pile of mail, put back the dishes the housesitter put in the wrong place. Bit by bit, I relearn what it is to be me.

No calendars are on the walls. I didn’t have time to get some before I left, and was hoping the mail would bring free ones. On errands I note how things have changed–progress on a building here, a part of town that seems cleaner there–and feel not so much lost as suspended in possibilities. Restocking my refrigerator is satisfying; mailing gifts is too. These quotidian things would have infuriated me as an adolescent and early adult–there are important things to do! Now it’s fine. First enlightenment, then laundry.

As the days shift between grey and sun, I reply to job prospects, or don’t. The book feels like a scary burden or feels like something I want to do. Everything seems open to a breath of possibility I haven’t known since I was a kid, when everything was magic.

Every night since that first night back, I have slept well.

Ceaseless

Ceaseless

 

1 Comment

Reality’s Shadow

All that we learn comes in from the outside. Innate behavior shouldn’t count as knowledge. We don’t know why we hunger, and we respond out of the body’s deepest wordless place. The flesh hungers and our sense only returns when it is sated, the fire leaving our eyes.

Some–mystic types, mostly–insist we have learned in previous lives, or are given knowledge by powerful forces we awake to. I don’t dismiss this. The world is as old as it is profound, and who knows what we know before we are ourselves? Life’s thread has been through many needles over billions of years, and it must have some great stories.

Particle Fever is a documentary movie that follows the physicists hunting the elusive Higgs boson with the Large Hadron Collider. (If you don’t understand this sentence, the movie is an excellent introduction.) We are treated to a high-definition tour of the massive complexity that is this machine, and, perhaps more importantly, the long emotional arc of the physicists as they drive headlong into work that may not pay off. It is a movie about standing atop the shoulders of your scientific ancestors, and leaping.

The movie does a good job of capturing what working on such a gargantuan project is like, imparting the endeavor’s essence without dumbing it down too much. It knows focusing on the human emotion and struggle is what keeps a movie alive. The nuts and bolts of the actual work is summarized, and there’s nothing wrong with this. For too long, science has been presented as sterile when it is more often a breakneck plunge down intellectual stairs. Confirming a model of how the universe works is tremendous, a revelation on par with writing, agriculture, or walking upright.

Large Hadron Collider

Large Hadron Collider

Alluded to but never spelled out, the movie leaves the greatest truth unspoken. The prime assumption of all science–the most amazing thing–is that the universe has order. It is full of patterns, symmetries, and relationships between them. This is why science is possible: if everything was random, or magic, we wouldn’t be able to figure it out. More exceptional still is that these patterns, symmetries, and relationships can be described in mathematics. At least some of us understand the math well enough to make windup universes. Supercomputers can turn these windup models backwards and forwards, tilting them so light shines into inaccessible recesses. Via these proxies, we can go inside stars, back in time, and down black holes. Each journey reveals more.

Whether we look down or up or inward, we can now choose a different kind of knowing.

A tesseract distorted for us.

A tesseract distorted for us.

Three dimensions define our physical world. Semantics and how slavish one is to mathematical purity govern how one talks about anything beyond this, but the explanation I most often see (or the one I remember because it’s the closest I come to understanding) is that the fourth dimension is no different than the other three. It’s just another right angle away from the third.

A line is one dimension. Draw another line at a right angle from the end of the line: that’s the second dimension, a flat plane. Make a square, then draw a line at a right angle to it: you must go up, out of the square’s plane. That’s the third dimension: height, in addition to width and length. To get to the fourth dimension, just draw another line at a right angle to the first three. Limited to three dimensions, we can’t draw another line at a right angle that is straight. The best we can do is something that looks like a cube inside another cube with the vertexes connected, as is rotating in blue grace above.

Some people claim they can imagine this shape as it truly is, if we too were in a space with four dimensions: every angle a right angle. Like the “magic eye” posters from twenty years ago, I can’t see that way. I can only see the cube inside the other cube and understand, as I understand things like “infinity” or “a billion”, that it works out.

Brute-force literal seeing isn’t the point. Being blind to a four-dimensional cube reveals other things.

Atoms and electrons exist. We’re sure of it, even though we will never see or touch them. We can experience them only as abstractions. For example, everybody knows what this is:

Your friendly childhood atom.

Your friendly childhood atom.

This diagram is wrong, and has been for over a century. The people who drew it know it is, just as the producers of the latest Cosmos television series know their whirling fuzzy atoms of a jiggling nucleus with points of electrons circling outside is wrong. Electrons around a nucleus could be imagined to “look” something like this:

Electron shells.

Electron shells.

Electrons exist within these shells, but not in the black spaces. An electron isn’t “traveling” inside the shells: they exist as probabilities, more likely to be in the white areas, less so the darker you go. They coalesce into a given wavefunction (this is not a discrete point, like a marble; due to wave-particle duality, electrons–like waves–do not appear in exactly one place) when they interact with another atom, or something else at a larger scale. (This is partly codified by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.) In other words, they do not really exist “inside the bright areas”: they are the bright areas. I am certain I have some of this wrong.

Why do we not tell kids this? Maybe some well-meaning people assume kids don’t care, and they’ll find out if they take high school science. Maybe adults have taken to heart the complaints of when are we gonna use this? This is rather esoteric, after all.

When does anyone “use” their understanding of the universe’s fundamental truth? You can’t put nature in the bank. It’s only good for exposing the way things really are, and, even greater than that, the truth that “the way things really are” is something we cannot experience.

We have no innate means to handle this information. As the great Richard Feynman himself is claimed to have said: anyone who says they understand quantum mechanics is lying or crazy. Thought can only do so much in understanding something too big to be immense.

Seeing, infinitely removed

Seeing, infinitely removed

The Large Hadron Collider works far below the lowest subbasement of the atom. It uses energies far beyond anything any human has ever experienced, in spaces so small our ideas of size have no meaningful application, to look at things that cannot be said to “look like” anything. We, the taxpaying public, see the same computer-generated diagrams the physicists use. We are told an exciting new understanding of how matter, energy, time, and the universe relate has been made. We celebrate, even if we don’t really understand. At least the physicists understand their machine speaks to them in ciphers.

But the greatest lesson is one not even physicists allude to.

When Newton formulated his laws of motion and developed calculus to describe them, the work was complete. In one stroke it allowed its practitioners godlike point of view. If you knew the starting states of everything with enough precision, you could figure out where everything would be far into the future. Everything could be known. Newton gave birth to the clockwork universe.

Universe-as-clock was fine for a time when a clock was a marvel. Go faster and smaller than any clock and Newton’s laws give wrong answers.

At the turn of the 20th Century, physicists found great speeds or tiny scales opened up new worlds. Newton didn’t work at all there. Quantum mechanics describes those places in ways that have nothing to do with clocks, or even cause and effect. Everything is probability, uncertainty, ambiguous, and subjective.

So, is Newton wrong? No. Newton works fine at the scales we live in. Quantum mechanics works fine too, if you want to do the math. It’s only outside our experience that quantum mechanics becomes a necessity.

Newton was one step, quantum mechanics another. Two steps is almost a path. It opens up the possibility of a third, and one as different and impossible to anticipate as the second was from the first. That’s the lesson I see, and, man, what a lesson!

Vision makes reality

Vision makes reality

Like all instruments, the Large Hadron Collider can only find what it was designed to find. That design comes from the predilections and assumptions of its physicist designers. Aggressive and driven, these people stand on the shoulders of Newton, Leibniz, Pauli, Planck, Heisenberg and others who took those first two steps. I suspect, without knowing so, they imbue their work with the white and European ideas of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution: Progress, Reason, the possibility of Perfection–Heaven on Earth. Most important: the unconscious assumption that new things to discover will be like the ones we already found.

Is that a smart assumption, given how different quantum mechanics is from Newton?

Physics, astronomy, and cosmology are already blurring into metaphysics. What does it mean that time stops at the speed of light? Or that electrons and smaller particles aren’t “particles” at all, too small to have anything like our idea of “size”? What if, after crunching the numbers and years of reflection, it turns out the Large Hadron Collider didn’t find the Higgs boson after all, but found something very different?

Mystics have long held that this reality is only a shadow of something else: the previous and next life, other worlds, “the Truth”. Modern physics agrees, with its assertion of a multiverse, at least by some practitioners. More staid minds insist this isn’t a scientific pursuit: how can the premise of a multiverse be falsified?

Knowledge has limits. When not used as a cop-out for superstition, this fact is profound truth. Accepting it means that even science has limits. Science must have a point where it stops working. At the very big, very small, very fast, or very hot–beyond even the insides of the Large Hadron Collider–can hypotheses be made and tested? In such places, can science exist?

We are animals. We are finely tuned to walk the savanna of a hundred-thousand to a few millions of years ago, on the lookout for berries and snakes. Driving cars and doing algebra strain our capacities. We see more and farther with our tools and abstract thinking, but we don’t hold things in our palms, smell them, taste them. The truth of the very large and very small is true, but a shadow to us. We will never, ever touch it.

Science, in its exacting reduction, has rightly taken the mantle of The Best Tool We Have. We must now face the most interesting and terrifying question: What happens when science ends? Will there be a difference between it and mysticism? Having come full circle, will the two be joined?

Einstein himself said God has a sense of humor: “When God created the ass he gave him a thick skin.” Maybe that old man on the beach was right: it’s turtles all the way down.

“Turtles All The Way Down” by Danc

Leave a comment

Ultimate Heat

All futures are possible

All futures are possible

What was the weirdest piece of information you came across in your research for the play?

I don’t think any of it seemed weird or strange, unfortunately. I was surprised to find out how many nuclear power plants we have in the United States. I was startled to discover that all of our policies on nuclear regulation are being enforced in the absence of emergency plans or crisis management. People proceed as though they’re always going to have an unbroken chain of civic control for thousands of years, and it’s not like that’s ever happened or is even possible.

— Anne Washburn, playwright of Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, as told to Nirmala Nataraj

Whether the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were intended to bring a quick Japanese surrender and spare the estimated millions of Allied casualties, or whether Truman’s darker purpose was to threaten Stalin, is a question of history that no amount of graduate theses will settle. So much power was unleashed with those two detonations that trying to comprehend what happened will be our species’ unending task. We will never finish.

Out of fear, dread, and–I hope–shame, the Eisenhower administration launched the Atoms for Peace program with a speech before the UN General Assembly on December 8, 1953. The United States would share its nuclear research with other countries, publicly to bring its benefits to all, privately to head off the Soviets sharing theirs. (Those history grad students have since revealed that “Atoms for Peace” was partly a Cold War propaganda ploy, named “Operation Candor”.)

Still, Eisenhower was no armchair intellectual. He knew what old-fashioned war could do, and understood the gravity of what nuclear war would be. Perhaps the last Lincoln Republican, he dismissed those that would have undone FDR’s New Deal as “stupid” and sent in troops to defend black students against Southern racists. Prescient for his “military-industrial complex” warning, he must have known, back on that December day in 1953, that putting the genie back in the bottle was impossible. The only hope humanity had would be to be good, and hope the genie would go along.

The United States knows that if the fearful trend of atomic military buildup can be reversed, this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind. The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future.

scott1070a

Nuclear power seems like a noble goal, even a no-brainer. As a kid, it was obvious. How else would we power starships and bases on the Moon? Space: 1999 showed some downsides–nuclear waste blowing the Moon out of its orbit was something I hadn’t considered, but found exciting, and then sad–but we couldn’t continue burning fossil fuels. That was so primitive.

In the fourth grade, my talented-and-gifted class went on a tour of the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant. It had begun construction in 1974; our visit was in 1979 or 1980, after the Three Mile Island emergency. What would turn out to be a partial meltdown of a Pennsylvania reactor spurred our visit. I remember sitting in a very large, very lush auditorium where plant engineers smiled in anticipation of softball questions. I have a very clear memory of asking exactly what had gone wrong with the Three Mile Island reactor, and how it was the engineers could insist that problem couldn’t happen at Comanche Peak. The woman gagged at me. I’m sure she wasn’t expecting that from an eleven-year-old, but I had been reading Ranger Rick since I was five. I was worried about the animals.

Removed to rural-suburban Texas, I had no knowledge of the anti-nuclear movement, which included massive marches in Washington and all over Europe. I loved the space program and, despite doubts the Comanche Peak visit planted in my subconscious, believed that nuclear power was fine. All the science fiction stories featured it. It was an advance and a wave of the future. I was just figuring out what facts were.

Back at school, we had a ‘debate’ over nuclear power, overseen by our teacher: is nuclear power good or bad? My memory is nerd boys said good and all the girls said bad. Somebody caught a glance of our teacher’s notes, and since she had written down more points the boys had raised, we declared we had “won”. Girls and their worries over pollution and accidents and what happens to the waste were all overblown, solvable problems, or non-problems, though I don’t think I thought that way. My rock-solid belief was that the adults would never do anything so dangerous as the worst case, never mind Three Mile Island. Adults would never do anything as wanton and stupid as the girls were suggesting.

Comanche Peak became operational in 1990, four years after the Chernobyl nuclear accident. There is still no place to store high-test nuclear waste, and whether a vault of the kind required can even be made is a question still unasked.

Fukushima Unit 4 spent fuel pool

Fukushima Unit 4 spent fuel pool

Since Chernobyl, high school, ongoing oil wars, and lately the revelation that Exxon sunk its own climate change research, nuclear power has fizzled. Outrageous design costs made worse by construction delays and mistakes, plus the realization that nuclear waste has to go somewhere, took the shine off Atoms for Peace. Nuclear plants aren’t protested the way they were in the Eighties because there is no need. The moneymen have worked their spreadsheets and found that nuclear power doesn’t pencil out.

Fukushima taught a new lesson.

Faulty design, a lack of what should be obvious foresight, panicked response and opaque communication of what was really happening: nothing new here. The mainstream media fanned the panic but did little to tease out information, as in solid facts, but they have devolved to retyping press releases for some time now. (Radioactive water releases were given in “tons”. Metric tons? Who measures water in tons? Why is it not given in gallons? That measuring in mass gives a smaller number than volume is my guess, but who knows.) Video shows explosions that were probably “prompt moderated criticality” events–brief moments when nuclear reactions occurred inside the tsunami-damaged reactors, blowing them up. Uranium fuel rods, both inside the reactor and spent fuel contained in nearby holding pools, were released into the environment. Cleaning up the wreckage, if it is possible at all, has no known endpoint. All old hat, just variations on what happened back at Chernobyl, where the temporary “sarcophagus” that entombed the reactor in the late Eighties has disintegrated, and a “New Safe Confinement” structure is being built to replace it. Estimated to cost about $3 billion, the new structure is designed to last 100 years. What happens at year 101, with only 99,899 years to go until the wreck loses the worst of its radioactivity (or 999,899, depending on how you measure), is another unasked question. Maybe we will spend more to build a “New New Safe Confinement”, and on and on, concrete shells encasing one another, like a pearl.

But none of this is new, or even interesting. Without explosions and flames, attention is elsewhere. But in that brief window when Fukushima had the world rapt, someone not on the approved list got on TV and said something so profound, it was missed: any nuclear power plant can suffer a catastrophic failure of the kind that destroyed Fukushima.

All power plants are cooled by water. Loss of cooling isn’t catastrophic to a coal- or gas-fired power plant: in event of cooling failure, the fuel can be turned off. Once filled with uranium fuel rods and the reaction is started, nuclear reactors cannot be shut off in this way, and require constant cooling. While the chain reaction can turned down to a low level, the reactor still produced tremendous heat, which must be removed. Failure to remove this heat will destroy the reactor, one way or another.

Fukushima suffered two losses that doomed it. One was the tsunami disabling or destroying some of its cooling water pumps. The second was the failure of the emergency diesel generators that powered the remaining pumps, either through destruction of the generators, their connections, and their control systems, or their running out of fuel. Loss of cooling not only led to the reactors overheating, but also the overheating of spent fuel, cooled by the same system. Depending on what story you read, Fukushima was blown up from a buildup of hydrogen gas produced when the spent fuel got hot enough to turn its cooling water into hydrogen and oxygen, or when the fuel in the reactor did the same thing, or when the spent fuel boiled all its cooling water away and exposed itself to air. Or, maybe, when the reactor fuel or spent fuel melted together and went critical. We may never know for sure.

Loss of the ultimate heat sink” is this failure’s name.

Man becomes his vision

Man becomes his vision

Buckminster Fuller is a genius to some, an eccentric to others; to the unkind, a nut. He thought big–not in size, but the number of connections, and how you could connect connections together. His geodesic domes are sprinkled here and there.

Don’t fight forces–use them. This was his mantra. Why build a big machine that needs power and maintenance and will eventually break when you can get nature to do the work for free? By accident, he built a house that cooled itself. He made exacting study of how to do only the work required, and letting gravity, sunlight, and design do it.

A nuclear power plant is the antithesis of Bucky Fuller’s ethic. All pipes and wires and concrete, they bristle with valves, ducts, switches, controls, and every other thing that aches to break. It’s an unwieldy, delicate and fussy contraption, poised with ungainly artifice above a tireless entropic sea.  The only way to go from there is down.

But, they are here. The United States alone has 100 reactors (99 operating, 5 under construction–the long drought is over) and boosters have new vigor in pushing for more. Ones built in the Sixties and Seventies have had their performances extended to the 2030s, or later.

I appreciate how Bucky saw the world. To him, I like to think, a hundred nuclear plants lugging their possible failure into the future is not something to dread, but an opportunity. The forces contained in them are natural, after all. Now that they are here, how can we use them?

Hot water.

I’m not an engineer; my degree is in English and history. But, I’ve taken science and math classes and long appreciated the mindset. I can perform automotive repairs by following the Haynes manual, and for money I do some light computer programming. I do it well enough to keep getting jobs. I know better than to channel Bucky at work, which would only baffle the MBAs. But Bucky’s Dymaxion mindset is great for blue sky thinking that is connected to the ground.

Spent fuel rods are hot. After powering a reactor, they sit in a spent fuel cooling pool. Years pass before the rods are cool enough to consider being moved to temporary or permanent storage. Given a lack of a permanent grave, most spent fuel languishes in the spent fuel pool, though some has found a semi-permanent (or long-term temporary, given your point of view) home in “dry cask storage“.

A temporary solution to a permanent problem

A temporary solution to a permanent problem

Sealed off, the rods continue to cool and decline in radioactivity for thousands and thousands (and thousands) of years.

Bucky would see this as a gold mine. I do too. Free heat! We’ve already spent enormous treasure to dig up uranium, concentrate and purify it, and form it into rods. We built big machines to make it even hotter, transmuting some of it into elements that will be even hotter for even longer than the uranium we put in. And we’re just going to throw it away?

But it’s radioactive! Glowing green, like out of the movies!

Yes, but what’s done is done. Apparently it’s safe enough to leave these casks out in the open, for birds to perch on.

But steel and concrete casks won’t last forever! No, they won’t, and that’s part of the solution.

WIPP, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, is the only long-term high-level nuclear waste storage facility in the United States. (The Yucca Mountain repository, almost completed but mired in perpetual controversy, was defunded in 2011.) WIPP is a specialized mine, with tunnels and rooms carved out of a 250 million year old salt layer 600 meters beneath the surface. Barrels and casks of waste are hauled down, sealed in the salt, and fingers crossed for 24,000 years.

In 1992, Sandia National Laboratories published the study Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, principal authors Kathleen M. Trauth, Stephen C. Hera and Robert V. Guzowsti. The report is a fascinating read despite its length and is an exhaustive answer to the government’s question: how do we warn future societies about the dangers of what is buried here? The question’s enormity is summed up by the frontispiece, which quotes the Pirkei Avot and Shelley’s Ozymandias: how do you communicate a complex message to people you know nothing about, and who know nothing about you?

It’s an interesting question, a corollary to people sending messages out into space, hoping ET will understand them, or listening for needle messages in a universe haystack. Some very smart people dig deep into what meaning is and how people make it. They don’t shy from the complications.

Their conclusions assume, if do not state outright, that the future is a simpler, ignorant, and fallen time. Assuming languages we now use will be forgotten, they propose massive, threatening earthworks to warn people away, like this:

“Spike field”

Look at the report’s page 149 for sketches. Even though they concede a written message may be useless, the authors suggest one, at their highest level of complexity, on page 103:

This place is a burial place for radioactive wastes. We believe this place is not dangerous IF IT IS LEFT ALONE! We are going to tell you what lies underground, why you should not disturb this place, and what may happen if you do. By giving you this information, we want you to protect yourselves and future generations from the dangers of this waste….

People who drink the water will drink the poison. If the water is used for animals or crops, those too will be poisoned and the people who eat them will be poisoned. It may take many years for the sickness and death to show. Radioactivity poisons people because it can cause cancer….

[The message continues at length with detailed descriptions of the nuclear and non-nuclear poisons buried, how radioactive they are and for how long, the year on our current calendars (including the Chinese) when it was buried, and how to measure the passage of time based on a diagram of Sirius, Canopus, Arcturus, and Vega.]

Do not destroy these markers. If the message is difficult to read, rewrite the message in your language in the blank area on this wall. If the markers are worn or missing, add new ones in longer-lasting materials in languages that you speak. This site, built in … by the United States of America government, represents a first attempt to responsibly dispose of wastes for an extended period of time. Other sites exist that contain radioactive wastes, and they are marked in a similar manner. We have shown these sites on a map in this room. Do not disturb any of these sites.

Some message to the future! How many people today, out scrounging for rocks or scrap metal, would understand it? Would understand the spiky earthworks? The authors spend some time wondering how to build an impressive artifact that will both inspire dread and fear but not be destroyed, or plundered for building materials.

Loss of culture is another kind of loss of the ultimate heat sink.

What would Bucky think of this enterprise, and–more importantly–of its assumptions? The key assumption I see is: the most certain safe future for this waste is hiding it away and hoping ignorance doesn’t unearth it. Thus, there’s a trust in a ‘positive ignorance’: not knowing will keep you safe. I don’t know if Bucky would go for this. I wouldn’t. Very few things humans find of any value go unpilfered. Long after our technological society is gone, who of those who come after would not see this great earthwork as a locked door with something juicy behind it?

Here is my suggestion. It solves the problem of time, of the confusing message that something hidden away with great effort isn’t valuable, of entropy wearing away all our works and intentions, and of trusting ignorance for safety:

Put it in the town square, and make hot water with it.

“Are you crazy?” No. (Thank you for asking.) I understand your reaction, but let the panic pass and think. (Remember: panic never solves anything.) You have a powerful thing you can’t really get rid of. Yes, it’s dangerous, but so are fire and moldy cheese. We’ve found ways to control both and use them to our advantage. Sure, at times things go wrong, but for 99.99+% of the time, it doesn’t. Yes, with something like nuclear waste 99.99+% may not be sufficient, but this is countered the same way we control fire and moldy food: with education and training. In other words, culture.

I imagine, in the center of towns large and small, a modest but solid civic structure. It’s staid, probably stone, like banks or libraries we built during the Depression and before. This is the center of a district heating system, where all the underground pumps and equipment hum and breathe, and where all the pipes converge. Behind multiple walls of thick stone, in a sub-basement beneath street level, is the small stainless steel vessel that contains a fuel rod or two. A bigger vessel holds the rod or rods. Smaller vessels connect two heat exchangers that transfer the decay heat to the outside, but provide isolation from the innermost water or other heat transfer fluid, which contacts the rods. It could look a little like this (noting this is a diagram for a reactor, not the simpler system I propose):

A typical nuclear reactor. Image: cnx.org

A typical nuclear reactor. Image: cnx.org

My idea has important differences:

  • No “reactor core”. The orange vessel doesn’t need control rods; the decay isn’t fast or strong enough to need controlling.
  • This vessel lies horizontal. The rod(s) would lie on some durable material that wouldn’t corrode or weaken under centuries of contact with the decaying fuel. Maybe ceramic, or carbon fiber? I’d make it in a waffle pattern, with pits and high spots, so if the fuel rod disintegrates over time, the chunks would fall into separate valleys and stay isolated. They couldn’t come together and cause a “prompt moderated criticality“.
  • The first heat exchanger has no gap for steam, because no steam is produced. The system operates without an air gap, or a small one with a valve to release any gas or bubbles. (Another thing that can break, but a necessity that is easy to repair or make. A water heater pressure relief valve could be enough.) Only enough fuel is sealed away to produce hot fluid (say 90° C), which cools over millenia. Water with some kind of antifreeze, or another liquid that wouldn’t boil or react (Freon?), serves as the working fluid.
  • Place the primary vessel (the “reactor” and the primary heat exchanger) lower than the secondary exchangers/generators. Hot water rises, is cooled when it’s drawn off, and falls again, eliminating one pump (something that needs power and breaks.)

The “primary vessel” would be much simpler and need fewer intrusions–cut-outs for pipes or manholes–thus making it safer and less prone to leaks. Leaks would be less likely to form as there is no great pressure or heat to be contained. Overengineering enables the original materials to last many centuries, if not millenia. (Could the vessel holding the rods be made of thick, new-tech glass? It would never corrode.) Yes, pipes made to last that long would be expensive, but spread out over a thousand years, it’s cheap, and the hot water is free. Modest electricity could be produced from thermal conversion devices, like the kind that power space probes and fancy campstoves.

What materials and fluids would be used? How would this be engineered? Is it really safe? I don’t know. I haven’t even drawn this on the back of an envelope. But it certainly seems possible to create a safe and very long-lived system if the scale is small, where “safe” is seen in context with things like chemical waste or automotive travel.

Caretaking is the advantage here. There is enough spent fuel for thousands of district hot water and power setups like this. Each city or town that gets one makes it a civic centerpiece. Every town will have hundreds of tinkerers and mechanics with more than enough skill to monitor and maintain such a system, especially if it is built out of simple, durable, and repairable pieces. Adults bond to young people as they pass on maintenance skills, or expand the system, or improve on the design. Everyone is taught about the system, where it came from, how it works, and its dangers. Schoolkids grow up with field trips; back in school, they make collages and write plays about their long-gone ancestors who bequeathed these strange gifts.

Nuclear waste needs watching, so give it watchers. Everybody knows it’s dangerous, but everybody knows how to keep it safe. It’s worth the effort because of free hot water makes it a good deal: it’s a little golden goose that doesn’t bite your hand so long as you respect it.

Humility is the greatest lesson. Long ago, I hope children will learn on a field trip, people tried to stop a terrible war with a terrible weapon. It worked, but the weapon was cursed: our ancestors were hypnotized by the weapon’s terrible power and could not stop making it. (Maybe some metaphysical discussion here, about transference, and projection, and seductive nature of fear.) At last aware of their mistake but still gripped by the curse, our ancestors tried to remake the terrible weapons into something that would do good. Somehow–we don’t really know how–our ancestors broke the curse. It worked, in a way, but they didn’t think it through. Unintended consequences caught up with them, and these consequences are so big they are still going, even now. The monster was made small enough to fit inside this metal shell, and it gets smaller as he sleeps, giving off the heat of his dreams. Long ago, your ancestors built these works to draw off the monster’s dreams, like we draw off honey from bees. You, children, reap the benefits when you turn on the tap, but you also pay with vigilance and respect. Like the bees, the power inside this vessel doesn’t care about you. It will sting hard enough you may die. You must be careful in your care.

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play is a post-apocalyptic drama without the pornography of violence. There is violence, sure: the play opens with our world ending, but the characters don’t fall into the exposition trap of groaner “science fiction”. One character whines about confusing information about how far away one must be from a destroyed nuclear power plant to be safe, and for how many decades, or centuries, or millenia. The power is in character: human frailty is on display. A noise makes everyone jump and pull out firearms; when a haggard traveler appears, he suffers some brutalization before the survivor group recognizes him as one of their own. Everyone then takes turns reading from their lists of names, long lists where everyone has bitter reverence drawn out. The traveler knows no name, but he misidentifies one; the woman with the list snarls at him to stop trying to make the person he met fit the person she wants to find.

I saw it a week ago, on November 10, 2015. Tickets were thin, but I selected “best available”. The system gave me standing room only. The house manager explains there are always no-shows, and as we’re at the top of the list, we’ll make out better than we think. He’s right: we are front and center, first row. I could touch the actors.

At intermission, the people next to us don’t return. The house manager replaces them with a pair of women. They say the play is weird, but are staying for the last act. From chatter, I sense weird is the common assessment: this is awfully grim for the Simpsons.

I think about our seats. Did someone else’s misfortune become our luck? Are parents home with a sick child, or worried in an emergency room? Did someone fail to come home? Am I am unknowing ghoul, fortune smiling on me by frowning on someone else?

Bad things happen all the time, and always to someone else, or people in the past. Our narrator will always tell our story.

The Ise Jingu grand shrine, a Shinto shrine in Japan’s Mie Prefecture, is rebuilt every twenty years. This has been done for between 1,300 and 2,000 years. Elders pass on skills to youth, and on and on. Like Theseus’s Ship, the shrine from twenty-one years ago is not the shrine you see today, but it is the same shrine as 2,000 years ago.

Shielded within a district heating system or buried in salt 2/3 of a kilometer down, a spent fuel rod will be the same spent fuel rod today or ten thousand years hence. The people who tend it, or who are ignorant of it, will rise and fall in generational waves, but they will always be its tenders.

Will our ostensibly sophisticated society consider putting its worst excess on display in its homely town squares? I don’t know. I think it is at least as good an idea as nuclear power, but with the benefit of acknowledging that we don’t think ahead very well, and always in retrospect.

Nobody knows the future. This is solace for me, and exciting too. There is always a choice to do good, even if we don’t know what that is. I take the fact that a good choice is not always apparent as a feature of my human limits.

Everything ends. Everything. Accepting this is freedom. It’s a corollary to accepting there is no afterlife. Imagine how different our world would be if everyone accepted this as true. How much more kindly would we treat each other? How reluctant would we be to rise in anger? How much more deliberate would we be, and how eager to see how precious is even the smallest thing?

In a far future where all titanic struggles and aspirations are forgotten, how amazing we would be to leave behind a warm bath and a community to care for it.