Gainful unemployment proceeds apace. Writing goes by every day, along with the goal to be more disciplined and get up earlier. Obamacare provides against calamity, and the dental woes that caused me to get the quickie job are fixed. Groceries are on the cheap at Grocery Outlet. I have made rice and beans twice.
Being in the place I have dreamed and planned about since high school is strange. It is not quite real, but getting real-er. When my old agency calls with a job possibility, I feel confused and afraid: what world are they talking about? That has nothing to do with me.
I am not as efficient as I would like, but getting better. I don’t sleep well, but go to bed anyway, and feel adequate the next day. The drugs to sleep are getting halved and halved and I am not backsliding…anymore. Writing has a sense of progress, sometimes releasing glimpses of adolescent delight. The days of the strange spring progress: warm and bright, people lost without gloom. I’m not worried about my checking account. Really.
Hiccups are minor, first-world problems. I patch a wall and can’t get the paint to match. $500 for an extra month of COBRA I didn’t anticipate, to cover the teeth. I keep not-quite-finishing cleaning up an old phone and computer on my to-do list since November. Nothing big, all handle-able. The ice is thick this far from shore.
Last week, something strange happened to the hot water. It was hot, and then it wasn’t. I was preparing for bed and didn’t worry: a bubble in the gas line. Next morning it was hot. A few seconds later, it petered out. Down in the garage, the control panel flashed C7, then 76. I flipped the breaker and it returned to 116. A minute of hot water ensued before giving out again.
My initial reactions of frustration and fear–how much is this gonna be?–are muted. For a brief span, I home in on those fixer skills learned in high school and college: who to call in the Yellow Pages, what Haynes and Chilton fixit manuals the library may have on water heaters. But this is a new era and grownup neurons connect to the first principle: Googling “Rheem water heater C7 76”. Days of 1987 futzing are reduced to one–very effective–2015 second. Therer’s lots of traffic on a common complaint: blown capacitors in the water heater’s insect brain. I called 877 123 XYZZ and they said they’d send me a new controller. Thanks, I called ’em and they’re giving me one too. That trouble code has its own number! 866 ABC 1234. HTH.
In September I will have lived in this house four years. The fact sits in front of me like a dog made from Kubrick monolith: no shock, awesome presence. In May, the four years since my divorce came and sat with the same substance: black, smooth, quiet. No shadows lay over anything–the spring has been unusually sunny. The house, which clanged with newfound emptiness, is now new-ish. When I return from a trip, it still smells of fresh paint and new carpet. I haven’t gotten lost in the 976 square feet in some time. It’s time for something to break.
Calling the number rewards the good sense I had to write down the model and serial numbers: Rheem RTG-74XN-2, RHNG0807900362. Transfers between a variety of accents puts me with a Tankless Service Specialist. C7 76 must have some infamy. Without discussion, Rheem is happy to send me a new controller board, with instructions, “as a courtesy replacement”. I am grateful for the wisdom of the crowd. I’ll even save them hiring a plumber and do it myself.
Difficult nights are rare, aside from the trouble sleeping, or overdrugging myself to get to sleep, leaving the next day insulated and hazy. Trouble comes more in the afternoon, with the bright light. It looks like childhood summer out there, with the high blue sky and the grass dried to hay. The neighborhood is quiet.
Childhood summers had a sliced quality. I can’t find a good word, but try this. Imagine the world is made of an infinite number of glass panes, all arranged face-to-face along an infinite number of planes. A stack of glass sheets recedes away from you into the distance, while other stacks run parallel to you, left and right; others run at every possible diagonal, up into the sky and down into the ground. No series of panes in its plane interferes with any other; nothing can break. It’s harder to see at night, but easy during the day, bright and still as it is. Days, I could step into the street and into exactly one of those panes. Everything was frozen and enumerable–one, two, three blades of grass, one suspended yellowjacket, ten rays of sun breaking off a cloud–the time inside the pane as infinite as that outside, but suspended, echoing. It didn’t matter what time it was. It was always that time.
Now, thirty-plus years on, some afternoons are the same. I am on a different street but the same place. Time is creeping and running away. How can I still be here? All that work was for nothing, because I haven’t gone anywhere.
No one will want to read this dumb book. I’m going too slowly to get it done, anyway. Who am I kidding? Should I call them back about that job?
The Earth is getting hotter. See how hot it is already? Your fluorescent bulbs and tankless water heater have made no difference, just like in high school, when you looked out the car window at the freeway and all the little houses, and knew it was too late.
Later afternoon breaks the spell. Afternoon light lets the glass panes merge back into a fluid world. Kids walk down the sidewalk. My two trees are leafed out, green and growing. David Letterman is still on TV, for a little while yet.
The day I call Rheem, hot water comes provided the power is reset. The internet says shorting some wires will cause the unit to work despite the fault, but I only get 90 seconds of hot water before it quits. This makes for a shower with a fast start and a thrilling end: head under the faucet to get wet, then enough warmth to shampoo and soap up. Closing the tap and scrubbing in the open air finishes with a stand-up polar bear plunge. (Glaciers provide cold water!) The next day, the Fedexed replacement does not arrive. I boil a kettle and mix this in a bucket for a sponge bath, like I am camping, or practicing for after The Big One.
Thursday the doorbell rings. I leave the box on the table to finish writing, and finish a chapter rough draft. (I am a good boy.) The fixing will be fun, and no reward is too small.
The Fedexed box contains a new controller board and a chip to program it, as well as two sets of contradictory instructions. One directs turning off switches in text, but the illustration shows turning them on. The other demands buttons be pushed and values read off the remote control display, actions not mentioned in the confused-switch instructions. I call the Code 76 dedicated line.
“Which set of instructions do I use?”
“Okay, turn the water off.”
“It….I’m sitting at my kitchen table reading the instructions. I haven’t done anything yet.”
The call center must be in New Jersey: the accent pours out of the phone. “Huh? You haven’t done nothin’ yet?”
“No. I got two sets of instructions that don’t match and I want to know which I should use before I do anything.”
“Uh…. Okay. Look, forget the instructions. Yoo dohn need dose. All yoo gotta do is replace the board and put that chip in. Pieceacake. Whydontcha cawhl back when you got it put in and we’ll walk you throo it.”
“Okay, I’ll do that.”
Straightforward work comes together in taking things apart. A few screws release panels that reveal Japanese workmanship. Thin color-coded wires plug into white sockets, all labeled with exquisite neatness, in English and kanji. American plumbing handiwork beneath is rushed and crooked. I am transported past those glass plane afternoons to a time after, working on Clinton-era computers and cars.
I once had a warehouse job at the army base south of town, pulling memory and hard drives out of scrapped computers. A man who said he was a retired sergeant major worked there, a former missile commander now driving a forklift. “I love this job,” he told me. “Obvious, well-defined tasks and objectives with clear expectations of what success is. No ambiguity. And always home at 4:30.” He drove that forklift like an equestrian ballerina. Standing in front of the water heater, reversing screws and unplugging connectors, has the same feeling. There is only one criteria, one objective, and no meetings required to answer: is the water hot?
Like the gold head in Indiana Jones’ temple, the prize is tantalizing but must be treated with respect. Do I pull out all the wires and then stand there wondering what goes where on the new board, like in middle school? Nope–one wire at a time, from old to new. It’s easy, except it isn’t: the wires have no slack, so the new and old board must face each other, the plugs going in as mirror images. I unscrew the power leads without taking care to note which terminal takes the white or black, but you can click picture above like I did to check. Film directing class pays off in surprising ways.
Amazing satisfaction comes from this simple work. Even though I am stooped and my fingers are too big, it’s clear, tactile, sensual. For the first time I figure out how to zoom in on a picture on my camera, using its even tinier buttons. No gotchas. Everything fits back where it should, Japanese tight.
I take some time to enjoy getting this far. While the cat lounges in the sun I look at this dismembered thing, now halfway together. Cars were like this: old parts finally out, new ones ready to go in. Momentum will carry on after the pause because we are at the peak, dwelling here at this place of change a moment before continuing on, enjoying the achievement.
The warm, bright, and almost rain-free spring has been a strange companion. Where are the clouds and drizzle? Women are bare-legged and sandaled in April, normally a time of hooded windbreakers. I had anticipated mornings of writing to my SAD-alleviation light, its hour-long timer breaking my concentration into chunks. But it’s too bright for that. Sun keeps getting brighter.
Writing is slow. I am not spending the time as I planned: launching into a day when it’s still early, wrapping up by noon, spending the afternoon exercising to wear myself out and sleep well, repeat until done. I get up late, sometimes 11, and take six hours to write for two. As described already, I feel unsettled, but I keep going. Shawna emails a Hemingway quote: The first draft of anything is shit. I’m not one to argue with Papa. Still….
No TV chatters distraction, but the internet provides enough news, and also “news”. I ignore all but the New York Times daily email digest and two environmental news feeds. In January of this year, the green feeds release news of a new report on planetary limits. Four of nine planetary limits exceeded, researchers say. Remarkably–because its environmental reporting has been reduced–the NYT carries a story on the same day. A graph is widely reproduced:
Reader comments do not suggest confusion over the graph, though it takes me a moment to figure out. (At the risk of condescending, it’s a polar graph. Think of the bars as rising out from a central point, instead of along a horizontal line.) As copied from the researcher’s site, the nine boundaries are:
1. Climate change
2. Change in biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and species extinction)
3. Stratospheric ozone depletion
4. Ocean acidification
5. Biogeochemical flows (phosphorus and nitrogen cycles)
6. Land-system change (for example deforestation)
7. Freshwater use
8. Atmospheric aerosol loading (microscopic particles in the atmosphere that affect climate and living organisms)
9. Introduction of novel entities (e.g. organic pollutants, radioactive materials, nanomaterials, and micro-plastics). [from the report summary]
Two-and-a-half of the nine the authors don’t know how to quantify (shaded white-grey in the graph). Land system change and climate change are in a dangerous area. The extinction rate and our use of fertilizers are off the scale. But at least we’re using water well (which seems counterintuitive given the profligate waste in the Southwestern US) and banned CFCs in 1987.
It’s nothing new. Since I’ve been paying attention, warnings have been given, alarms sounded, dire consequences foretold. Aside from the 1987 CFC ban, attempts to at least reduce the reach and speed of human destruction are confined to the 1960s an early 1970s. The free market has been allowed to save us instead. Now we can see images of our carelessness and folly in an instant, in our palms, if we are not playing a game or looking at cats.
1989 brought an epiphanal car ride. I know I’ve written about it before, but it sticks with me, a personal Kennedy assassination gasp. I am nineteen, back in Fort Worth, Texas, after some months away at a Boston college. My mother’s 1988 Ford Taurus wagon still sparkles. It is autumn overcast, and we drive a tiny portion of the long north-south galactic landing strip of I-35W. My mother and I are having a halting, prickly conversation about college and what I should be doing with my life. I am sullen, feeling trapped: school is expensive and isolating, but most classes are far meatier than anything I experienced before. I feel there is another solution but am blocked by my mother’s reactive blowups, fueled by her fears I won’t graduate any college.
Plains of nothing, corn, and single-story ugly suburbanity extend east and west. To the west are big squares of corn, now tawny for harvest, threads of potholed roads running through them. Farther west, suburban tract homes–little squares with triangles on top, like a first grader would draw, but lacking anything green–cling to arterials.
1989 is the rising curve of an echo of earlier environmentalism. TV news has even paid attention, covering the CFC treaty and the first reports on “the greenhouse effect”. Spurred by fears of nuclear war, I joined the Union of Concerned Scientists in high school. Their magazine outlines the looming threat of climate change–in 1989–and in typical environmental fashion provides overwritten articles describing the problem and what to do. This is the era of “Fifty Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth”, an upbeat, can-do book on recycling newspapers and turning lights off. The book is a runaway bestseller. That these tips are 1970s retreads goes unexamined.
The UCS magazine has articles on tree planting to capture and store greenhouse gases. I remember an estimate of 40 acres of trees to store the annual emissions of one car. (Now the EPA says approximately 4 acres.)
All these thoughts–college, my mother’s expectations, love of cars, greater love of trees, military adventures in Central America, oil spills, climate change, what else is there to do but go back to Boston and dig a giant debt for my parents–stew around as I stare out the autumn window, corn a blur. We are in a car, the engine running, one among many. Trees could go out there instead of corn, growing year after year. The blur going by would cover this 1988 Ford Taurus wagon. And then another blur, more trees, more trees to the horizon times number of cars times available acres–
There’s not enough.
Like everyone reporting back from the mountain, the tale of the divine sight is wild and boring. This is just like that, but quiet. It’s a fall day on a Texas freeway and I understand: there are too many cars, planes, trains, ships, furnaces, pilot lights and Zippo lighters. It can’t be done.
All the little plugs are snapped in, the screws replaced. The breaker is flipped, the unit ready to be plugged in. The cat watches from the window as I call the Code 76 Line again.
“Yeah, this is Rheem Technical Support. Can I get your serial number. Please.”
It’s somebody different: a black man with the black man deep voice, maybe bored, maybe tired of dealing with idiots. My bona fides are established. “I’ve got the board installed and wanted somebody on the line to walk me through it. I don’t want any burned out boards.”
“Yeah.” He shows no sign of approval. “All right. You got the board installed?”
“Yes, it’s in and connected. Everything done but no power.”
“Okay. You program it yet?”
“No, like I said I haven’t done anything, just put it in.”
“Okay, you gotta program it. Put that chip in before you turn it on.”
“Instructions say to write some numbers down. I don’t need to do that?”
“Naw, the programming does all that. You got the chip in?”
A postage-stamp sized breadboard with a white connector comes out of another bag. It fits in one slot only one way. “Okay, it’s in.”
“All right. Turn the power on.”
It’s on Rheem now if it goes wrong. I plug it in. “You see any blinking? Should be a red light blinking.”
A red LED flickers once on the new board. “On the control board? An LED blinked once. It’s dark now.”
“What’s the remote show?”
“The temperature panel?”
This is just beyond a window that doesn’t open, on the other side of two flights of stairs. “It’s flashing 82.”
The guy is nonplussed by my post-run gasping. “Okay. You gotta program it now. Press S3.”
I run over the stair mountain again and am press a tiny button sized for an infant’s finger. With the invisible magic we have become accustomed to, somewhere on the board a program runs and reads a file from the little chip. The red light flashes rapidly. “It’s flashing. Now it’s steady.”
“Okay. It’s programmed. Should be good now. What’s on the panel?”
More running. The temperature display shows 100. Running back outside rewards with the low thrum of a lit burner and a fan, humid exhaust coming hot out the top. Inside the water runs hot.
“All right. Looks like it’s all done. Thanks for the help.”
“Yeah, okay, yeah, thanks for calling Rheem have a good–” The line cuts off.
I feel a modest triumph. I take my time now: bottom panel back on after re-wrapping the inlet tubes against freezing, top panel next. Sheet metal screws are a simple pleasure, the threads snugging without fully gripping. I remember a web page about annual maintenance and remove the cover just installed. Flames glow blue through the little window; nothing comes out of a filter. Everything was fine already.
I feel like the retired warehouse missileman: the job is done, no doubt, just satisfaction.
Since the grey epiphany of autumn 1989, I have wobbled between two spaces. One is wide open, where ingenuity, Yankee thrift and responsible shepherding walk us away from the cliff and toward a future that is sensible, respectful, and green with modest bounty. The other is the dark place of all those science fiction and black fantasy novels I read as a kid, a world of puzzling ruins from a long-ago planetwide bacchanal, tribes scratching out lives while they hide from radioactive monsters from the sea. The B-movie presentation of this second is ridiculous, but in a way not bad enough for what a world 2°C…4°C…6°C warmer would look like.
The cost of wind power drops in half, and I feel like something could work out. The SUV craze more than cancels this out. Hope from the 1992 Rio Earth Summit evaportes as the decade goes along. In 1998, gas gets to 80¢ a gallon, and you can buy a Ford Expedition that weighs more than the biggest Seventies boat, and has worse mileage. 1999 brings the Honda Insight, the first real hybrid. My ex bought one in 2005. I got 73 miles per gallon on a cross-country trip. On the road, this miracle car is a rare oddball.
I float through a period of internal darkness where everything external is fine. Even before I get sick in 2002, I struggle with an inner narrative of us lumbering toward a dire future, while everything external is great (as seen from middle class white America). There’s peak oil, carcinogenic flame retardants, e-waste. September 11, 2001 is a symptom of a greater disease, and, true to form, the American response is to double down.
It’s a hard duality. This must be what the true believer feels like, wandering among the Godless knowing they are headed for eternal fire. My secret admission: I relate to their secret smugness, knowing everyone will burn. But unlike them, I know that ‘everyone’ includes me, and am sad. I am tasteful and keep all this to myself. But: the rainforests, the polar bears. I feel the worst sort of bad for them.
Time brings all the big changes you can go back and read about in four years of essays here: divorce, Hawaii, jobs, losses, pursuing an old dream in a new way. I ride the bus; I walk. I have a Prius now.
Here is what happened: I found a place outside the two I’d known. I can look into those old rooms of despair and hopeful curiosity and see them as understandable but limiting. We all need models to make sense of the world, but models are not reality.
I don’t know when it happened, or exactly how. The Kubler-Ross stages of grief came up in therapy. Kubler-Ross never intended her work to be seen as scientific, or her stages as immutable boxes passed through in order. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are soft categories, helpers to group common experiences without limiting them. Kubler-Ross was only reporting what she saw, trying to make sense of things.
Decathexis is the dis-investment of mental or emotional energy in a person, object, or idea. (It’s fun to learn a new word.) A person facing death undergoes decathexis in his or her own continued existence. For survivors, the dis-investment is of the existence of the person who has died. This is what grief is. Grief, like anxiety, is a defensive barrier: the ego, in its narcissistic panic at no longer being the narrator at the center of the universe, throws everything it has at the void. Nature abhors a vacuum, and human nature is no different.
Over the past year a quiet struggle has carried on beneath my attention. Friends wax that our damages will roost on us but the Earth will continue on into the deep future. It feels suitably Old Testament, but I don’t think it jives with the science. The Arctic is warming at the rapid pace predicted decades ago. YouTube has many videos of Alaskan and Canadian high school kids punching holes in Arctic lake ice and lighting fireballs of escaping methane. At the latest big UN climate change meeting last December (2014), a group of scientists calling itself the Arctic Methane Emergency Group has dire talks about the melting Arctic permafrost. Methane is an underappreciated wild card. No one in the 1990s modeled the effects of the amount of CO2 that has in fact been emitted, because no climate scientist could imagine anything so crazy. In the same way, nobody knows what would happen if very large amounts of methane entered the atmosphere, or even has a good estimate for how much methane the Arctic (or Antarctic) has locked away.
The struggle is….what?
On walks the trees turn colors with fall. The November grey and rain comes in October. Cold snaps are few and brief. Spring comes early, crocuses popping up in February. The mountains have no snow. Nature goes on, but all the data says it’s changing, and it is.
Decathexis happens on a walk, from what I can remember. Maybe it has happened before and I’m going through it again, like Kubler-Ross says to expect. But I am walking and with each step there is a little less, a little less, shaky but always less. Less what? Fear, anxiety, flattened sheets of rage, disgust, judgmental smugness, that indescribable thing that makes you hop on one foot in the middle of the night and try to get inside the walls, impolite to show in daylight.
I think I stop at a corner. I am facing south and the great white edifice of Mount Rainier fills the horizon. Rainier and the Cascades are young: as mountains go, they just got here yesterday. Its glaciers are remnants from the ice age–from the mountain’s perspective, just an hour ago. They could be gone by its afternoon.
I don’t feel light, but it’s similar. I let go of things and they blow away. I didn’t even know I was holding them.
The Buddhists call this surrender: not a “giving up” in the Western, Cinemascope sense, but disabusing oneself of believing that the universe is interested in our opinions. The universe is not even indifferent.
Peace is a strange air. I realize peace is not necessarily pleasant–release is still falling–but it is easier. There is nothing to do.
Two days without hot water is the firstest of first world problems. Billions do not have a valve to turn to release cheap, plentiful, near-sterile and delicious fresh water any time they wish. Nor do they have a tub to stand in, electric light, soap, a house to keep this all and a store to buy more. Come summer, I won’t use hot water at all, the cold water a sharp relief from the un-air-conditioned day.
Will those billions get clean water, cold or hot? A house with electric light? A washing machine? Billions want them, it is assumed. Thirty years ago a billion Chinese had bikes; now they are repeating the most American mistake and building freeways and buying cars. Spittle flies off economist lips, their eyes big with all the money to somehow be had selling the Consumerist Life to people who have no money. Still, the machine works, however it does, for a while. It doesn’t ask questions of how much stuff is left for making all those houses and washing machines.
My hot water is turned down to 116. When I run a shower, I catch the first few cold gallons in a bucket and use that to flush the toilet or water a bush. I set the central gas heat to 65°F, and much lower at night. I make hardly any trash, and my recycling bin isn’t that full either. I use the free LED bulbs the utilities give away, and buy them as their prices fall.
What will happen in the future? Is there time left to preserve the climate civilization evolved in, lift billions out of poverty, reduce disease and increase health while not overwhelming the planet by sheer numbers? Will we make the Great Transition? I don’t know. Nobody does. Maybe we will. All kinds of things are happening, or struggling to happen, on the tip of happening. But I see the biggest impediment to our own survival as the burden of obsolete ideas.
I don’t know what the future will be like. The more hopeful part of me sees something more practical and egalitarian than what Valley geniuses can imagine on a phone, the darker the ruins and scrabbling tribes. I do not think there will ever be monsters. Any monsters are small and look a lot like us.
I have hot water. I will take the broken part to the used computer junk palace down the street and hope they take it for recycling. I will pick up cans and bottles on the way home. I’ve been picking up cans since 1978 and they keep coming. A future without discarded cans is certain, I think, but I don’t know what it looks like. In the meantime, I will pick them up, and when I drop them in a recycle bin, I will let them go, over and over again, as many times as necessary.