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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.


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.



Why I Miss Graham Chapman

Chapman as Brian, Revealing His Truth

Chapman as Brian, Revealing His Truth

Graham Chapman (1941-1989) is the best member of Monty Python, because he is dead.

Consider all the projections, revisions, distractions, protestations, enumerations, iterations, pauses, disappearances and re-emergences we have been spared due to Chapman’s being dead. No defending writings that annoy the uptight and religious; no half-realized and forgotten films, like Terry Jones’ “Erik the Viking”; no contrite reintroductions to respectable society after a bout (or bouts) in the Betty Ford clinic. Chapman had the last laugh first, and saved himself all that embarrassment.

We can all hope for his resurrection, a la Christ cum Brian, which would be most suitable, and enjoyed by all.

Chapman is described by those who worked with him as a shy intellectual, his humor of the baroque and cerebral bent peculiar to Britain. Meeting John Cleese at Cambridge, the two became writing partners, and after graduation both had the great fortune to begin writing and performing for David Frost and Marty Feldman at the BBC. Chapman landed his first significant role as writer and performer for At Last The 1948 Show, aired in 1967. David Attenborough commissioned Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 1969.

Monty Python’s success did not faze Chapman. He came out in 1968 and was a lifelong champion of gay rights. He began drinking in college, favoring gin, but gave it up in 1977. (After missing cues in stage shows, he was concerned he would not be able to perform well in the second Python movie Life of Brian, and thus ditched it.) I recall a Python documentary with Michael Palin describing picking up Chapman for the morning’s writing meeting, and the reek of gin and toothpaste filling the car. I like to think Chapman returned to his center.

Considered by the Pythons to have the best straight acting skills, Life of Brian gave Chapman the lead of hapless founder of an accidental religion. The movie’s memorable scene, beyond all the other memorable sacrilege, is featured in the image above, where naked Brian opens shutters never expecting an admiring throng to admire his…majesty.

Wikipedia states that “Chapman did not mind being filmed fully nude in front of a crowd in Life of Brian[.]” But I have seen an interview where Chapman states this scene rattled him badly. Opening the shutters on the first take elicited shrieks from the extras below, and Chapman slammed the shutters. Being nude, in the light, in front of a crowd of strangers horrified at him, Chapman recalls in a quiet, softly lit room, froze and terrified him. He had not anticipated the risk of being so open.

1979 is a world under glass now. Public nudity and gay marriage in 2015 are tolerated, more or less, or at least far less dangerous to practitioners. Teen to post-teen pop stars regularly do things on stage that would have got them drowned as witches in 1979. Sexualization of everything has made us numb to how pervasive pornography is, if not of the human body, then of the social compact whereby we agree some things are sacred. The outrage Life of Brian elicited in 1979 is 2015 quaint.

Seeing Chapman’s visible discomfort recalling his nude scene resonated with me. It resonates still. He seems like, and comes across as, such a kind and dignified man. He plays to type by being scarred. After all, he invented The Colonel, the Monty Python character that ends scenes by declaring them “too silly”. The Colonel is the kind of mask that shows the face beneath the skin.

I missed Chapman even before he was gone. He seemed like the least visible Python, the others having found well-lit places as writers, actors, and directors. I didn’t know about his wild college shows, and was still discovering all the Python films when he passed away. It was a strange loss to learn of, as if an historical figure had been reanimated ten years before I knew about it, only to die again before I learned how well he or she meshed with me.

When Brian opens the shutters, he is surrounded by people, but alone. Nobody sees him, just his nakedness. Without clothes, he doesn’t even have himself.

In the right circumstances, I can be an exhibitionist. These are limited and I’m sure preclude opening a shutter on a village square. But, if that happened, I like to think I’d have a dignity that would keep away shame. That stuff is poison, and all I did was open a shutter.

We overcome adversity, more or less. Big things we can shrug off with alarming ease, while lesser things dig in and persist. I have been lucky to have suffered little loss, but I have had enough to make for some grey years. But more vivid is my memory of a girl yelling Gawd! Fuck you, faggot! when I asked to get to my high school locker. The light in that hall, the look on her face, and the sound of her voice persist in a way more real than bigger, more recent things.

Did opening that shutter stick in Graham Chapman’s memory in the same disproportionate way? There’s only so much to read out of videotaped body language. But the possibility that this did was a revelation for me. Even someone like Chapman–educated, worldly, a trained doctor–can be wounded.

Thanks for the lesson, Colonel.

The Colonel covers all!

The Colonel covers all!

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Planets of Gold

You are here. Credit: NASA.

You are here. Credit: NASA.

1990 is in the past, but its artifacts remain. The first car that was wholly mine was a 1990 Honda Civic, a blue sedan with air conditioning and power everything. The I-35-to-I-20 interchange in Fort Worth, Texas was completed in 1990, the continent’s north-south traffic now funneled through a city-bisecting concrete trough. A year later, there would be an optional war that would shape the wars we have today. Even obvious things are hard to see.

Relenting to Carl Sagan’s years of prodding, in February 1990 NASA directed the creaky Voyager 1 spacecraft to turn its camera back the way it had come. The risk of the Sun burning out the camera no longer of concern–the way ahead held nothing to photograph–tiny heaters warmed the old-style vidicon TV tube. Unused for years, no one knew for certain if the camera would work after a deep soak in gelid cold and brutal radiation, or the motorized platform that moved it. From six billion kilometers away, the old 1970s-era tube would need long and steady exposures to gather enough light to make images.

Everything worked. 60 images were captured and returned to Earth. Two planets didn’t make an appearance: Mercury was too close to the Sun, and, due to a trick of the light, Mars was lost to reflections. Another trick of light places Earth in a sunbeam. I don’t know if any pulpits made any pronouncements based on this ostensible sign, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

“Pale Blue Dot”, as our single-pixel portrait has come to be known, is now something out of time. A cultural undercurrent, it was not photographed by anyone. It is an artifact made by an artifact. Both may last forever.

Time stretches on in little drops. If you go faster, the drops merge; if you go slower, they separate. There is no up or down, more or less: you can only move relative to something else, which is also moving. There is no solid place to stand, unless you go very fast, in which case you can become almost still. At almost the speed of light, time slows to a near stop. Only light holds the privileged place. Light is the only still thing, because light, the fastest thing there is, does not experience time at all.

Light from 1990 flows outward. Diffusing over distance, it becomes harder to pick out, but that blue glint of 1990 Earth courses outward, forever. Bits here and there will be absorbed by planets and meteors, more likely dust and gas, if anything. But the universe is almost all nothing. Most of the light will go on, always free. No time will pass for it. It will always be new.

The radio transmission Voyager 1 sent back to us is also light, just at an energy we can’t see. A very tiny portion of it landed on a parabolic dish, was washed and concentrated by equipment cooled to a hairsbreadth of absolute zero, and recorded as ons and offs. Almost all of it passed us by and flew on into the dark. Data no one will ever read still retains the sensibility of that long-ago day, and always will.

Old Kodachrome memories of grandparents’ houses and elementary schools sit in albums and redden with time. The light that exposed the film is long gone, turned to tiny heat that drifted away. Energy is neither created nor destroyed, only its temporary condensation held in something we can appreciate. Photographs won’t last forever, but the light that made them will.

We know just enough about the world to begin to ask questions as profound as they are unanswerable. Logic is our friend here. In a big enough place with endless time, the possible is certain.

I read a planetary science article that described a new conclusion about how Earth got its gold. Previous to this new work, it was thought that all the gold humans have ever panned from streams or dug out of mines came from our planet’s formation billions of years ago. Staring at apple trees and fiddling with calculators, the authors had a hypothesis this couldn’t be right. What we know of geology and planetary formation, applied to a computer model of the early Earth, prove that all the Earth’s original gold is too dense to have stayed anywhere near the surface for humans to find. Due to its density, all that primordial gold must have fallen down to the core, back when the planet glowed red hot. So, the Earth should have no gold. (Whether this applies to lead, or uranium, or any heavy elements is not explored.) But, there is gold. Studying meteorites and comets suggest that all the gold available to us was deposited in countless impacts, over millions of years, as comets and meteors pelted the early Earth.

On its own, this is one of those interesting observations that can make for bar chatter that proves you’re a square. But this stuck with me.

Well, I thought waiting for the bus one work day, if all the gold fell to the Earth’s core, it must still be there. In among the liquid iron that churns and makes the magnetic field, there must also be gold. Giant globs of it, mountains of it. So much gold that we’d make wires out of it instead of copper. 

The bus comes.

Oh. If that’s true for Earth, that must be true for other planets like Earth, like we are finding these days. And the universe is 15 billion years old, give or take, so there must be countless dead Earths. If they were closer to their star, and their star blew up, those other Earths would disintegrate, blown out into the galaxy, the debris cooling down. 

This is what meteors and asteroids are: bits of junk that never got big enough or to the right place to become a planet, or a planet ground up by their neighbor’s gravity. I’m guessing Jupiter smashing up a proto-planet is what made our asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. (If Mars had been a little closer to Jupiter, or managed to grow a little bigger in the Solar System’s first millions of years, it might have been ground up too.)

Through tunnels and over bridges the bus goes. Steel girders carry streets and make columns. Some meteors are solid iron and nickel. You can turn them on a lathe. Those rocks must be the frozen hunks of planetary cores. They were broken up and frozen, and they rain down from time to time. 

Do you see what I see?

Throughout the galaxy, there must be asteroids of gold. Smashed apart in impacts or blown up by dying stars, a rocky planet’s core cracks like an egg and the glowing contents spill out and freeze. All that stuff trapped inside for billions of years is released again: the gold, the lead, every scarce oddball on the periodic table in rocks as big as cities, as mountains, as continents.

Planets of gold surround us.

Mars is hot again. There’s a movie made from a novel about a stranded astronaut, and a semi-autonomous robot of the kind Carl Sagan dreamed of is wheeling around the surface, tasting rocks and sending pictures. Fools who should know better think a one-way trip to Mars is a good use of precious resources instead of cause for a serious talk about watching too much television. A few people are kind-of interested in these sorts of adventures. Most feel more like Gil Scott-Heron, back when we were only talking about cities on the Moon.

We will never go. Such an undertaking is too expensive, and that is how we really measure things. That going would kill most people before they arrived, and contaminate Mars with Earth microorganisms, are secondary reasons.

Still. Wonder costs nothing. We have plenty already, right here, that we don’t know about. I understand running away from problems, but that only gets you so far. Better to sort out what’s a problem and what’s something you can act on.

It’s certain there are others out there, if not looking through telescopes then just looking up and wondering. It’s enough to imagine, out there in the dark and never to be found, whole worlds of silver and gold, time and distance making it so they will never be valuable, only beautiful. That is a worthy faith.

Golden. Credit: ESA; Hubble, M. Kornmesser; and ESO, L. Calçada and L. L. Christensen

Golden. Credit: ESA; Hubble, M. Kornmesser; and ESO, L. Calçada and L. L. Christensen

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Heatolator Ministrator

Not a temperature

Not a temperature

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.

New brain, same as the old brain

New brain, same as the old brain

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.”


The mass exposed

The mass exposed

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.

The help

The help

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?

The board in question

The board in question

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:

The Nine

The Nine

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.

A temperature

A temperature

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.

Kubler-Ross' stages

Kubler-Ross’ stages

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?

February cherries

February cherries

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.

The edge of the earth is solid

The edge of the earth is solid

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Monkey Doesn’t Work Here Any More

[To have been published in March. Sorry for the delay.]

Call to fantasy

Call to fantasy

You can never get enough of what you don’t really need.

– Eric Hoffer, as quoted by Harold Ramis

Only now, as so often happens with adulthood, do I get the unspoken messages implicit in viewing life as a journey. There is the going, of course, and the looking back, or not. Which of these makes trouble for you gets the balance of your attention, until persistent effort has made that problem so small even you can’t find it any more. How shocking: the mountain, sharp-toothed and insurmountable, not even a molehill! But to see even this, one must pause. We aren’t much on pausing, at least those of us brought up in Calvinist shadow. We have to hurry up and get to work tomorrow. If we paused, we’d wonder where we were going in such a hurry, and why.

That, then, is the journey’s real treasure: the ability to leave it for a while. The pause lets you see the shape of it, walk around the animal of it, hold your hands up to its breath. That gift shines and and shines and can’t weigh you down.

Everything is steady now. It’s a funny feeling. The ground doesn’t shift, and the alternating feelings of floating up into a giddy Teletubbie sky or falling beneath the sidewalk are no longer present. Instead, the daily up and down is more even, and all the business occurs on or slightly above the sidewalk. Pills are at work, but medical professionals are quick to scold: don’t be so eager to give them all the credit. I don’t know what to do with this: if they don’t work, why am I putting up with Cowardly Lion libido? I get the point, as uncomfortable as it is to accept the truth. Unforgiving questioning of the old negative scripts–you aren’t enough, it’ll never work, you have already failed–makes them squirm and eye the exit. Whether the pills are a cause or effect doesn’t really matter. I am happy to talk to the medical professionals, though. It’s important to validate all their time in school.

Still, it’s more than a little weird. I am not sure what to do with devoted friends who are supportive and interested, and even more rewarding to talk to now that our conversations go beyond the immediate task of talking me off tonight’s ledge. I have a surfeit of loving and growth with a beautiful and dynamic woman. Health is more up than down. I have a nice cat.

My job’s end a week ago was a non-event. It hardly registered on an emotional scale, and this was curious but unconcerning. Since it was never meant to be anything but short-term padding, I had even less interest in bringing anything to personalize my space. There was nothing of mine to take home; the computers and monitors I lugged out belonging to the agency. The guy next to me was on a different team, but he was affable, and we chatted sometimes. I don’t think he understood I was leaving the job on a trajectory that did not lead immediately to another job just like it. To stop his questions of what kind of business I was starting, I told him I was taking time for myself to write. After two days the idea percolated through, and his shock changed to wonder. It truly seemed like something new.  

I met with my boss the day before my last. He was grateful, animated, and thankful for my professionalism (which still surprises me, as experience has shown this decodes to acting like a grownup). He wanted to take me out to lunch for a proper send-off, which I found unnecessary, and fate conspired to take all his spare time for meetings and “offsites”. In the end, he shook my hand, asked me to keep in touch, and ran off to a meeting. I never saw him the last day.

Blank desk

Blank desk

With nothing to remove, leaving is easy. I take a big monitor home on the bus and make do with just one. Its last work done, a desktop computer, its metal hull battleship-thick, is cleansed of all precious IP (intellectual property: software–especially the human-readable source code–and other documents someone, in theory, would care to steal) and lugged home a previous day. The agency does not need it for a while, so it sits on my main floor and works full-bore on curing cancer, sipping electricity in silence. (My personal 2009-era desktop at the same task shrieked like a hair dryer and made an obvious impact on my electric use, and so sits off.) Mice and keyboards borrowed from The Man are returned, to the supply room’s astonishment. I return sticky notes.

On the last day, I remove the project’s last vestiges from my agency-issued laptop. Setting everything up took weeks. Removing takes a couple days.

Goodbye to you, polite little thing

Goodbye to you, polite little thing

On the last day, anxious or stern or aloof administrative assistants (Microsoft’s title for secretaries–typically temporary employees, and all women) roam my pod of tables, arms full of red and white packets. Each desk gets one, even if no one has sat there for months. The woman that comes to me is the sort of heavy-set that would be very attractive if she wasn’t so worn down by work she could take care of herself.

Everyone is being moved, as is standard Microsoft procedure: every six months or so, groups are moved to a different building, or a team broken into separate molecules and dispersed to different campuses. Most often this occurs when a project is in a critical phase, deadline looming, everyone bleary-eyed and sleeping in their cars. I have not been able to discern what the intent is, though the effect is to make in-person communication impossible. On a previous year-long assignment, I was moved four times to four different buildings.

The woman looks at the surface of me, like an elementary school teacher who has realized she dislikes kids. “What’s your alias?”

Throughout this job, admins have come by at regular intervals asking for my shorthand network name. The alias confers a person legitimacy in the Microsoft collective, and existence in the machine realm. Without an alias, one cannot login to the network, print something, send an email, or even enter a building. All the records relating to moving my corporeal self is not related to me, as a living human being, but to these bytes in Active Directory. It is efficient, in that computer way. I believe the alias was invented by George Orwell.

I smile at the woman. My neighbor–the one who could not comprehend not having a job–has been abuzz with rumors of the move, gone with others to see the new location. I am removing the software pictured above, and taking the picture. I smile at her. There is no reason not to.

“It’s my last day.”

It stills her, flummoxed with her papers. I’m smiling and that’s all: no gotcha, no sticking it to anyone, no getting back. I have nothing to let go of because I never grabbed on.

“Oh.” She seems disappointed in an annoyed way. I have probably made some work for her, a bit of extraneous data to clean. She moves to the last desk. “Are you vee-dash-why-arr-el….” The guy nods and she thrusts a packet at him. She exits.

A few hours later, I check around my desk one last time. “Well, see you later,” I say to my neighbor. “Nice knowing you!” he says, happy.

Off and on, here and there, I have checked for Monkey. At streetcorners I look behind me. At home, I lift up rugs and look behind my closet door.

“Monkey? Is that you?”

No answer. The silence is that fullness that does not ring. The sky is grey but not leaden. Empty eyes do not stare out of soulless buses, and people do not huddle in their coats against an indifferent rain. Christmas lights left up are not a source of sadness. Somewhere, cartoons are always on.

I get to writing without the fullbore drive I would have when I was younger, and with modest goals gradually increased. I hold myself accountable and meet them, mostly. A film directing class spikes my anxiety–how can I handle this and get the book written?–but find a way. I keep moving ahead. Time is busy with much leeway. Don’t beat yourself up, I’m told. With some practice, I don’t.

One night the late phone call that needs no phone comes.


I’ve only got a minute. 

Some silence. Then: “Where are you?”

Asking questions puts everything back on me. Is that really what you want to know?

“I’m…look, I’m sorry.”

Bet you never thought you’d say that to me.

“You seem angry.”

He laughs, not a monkey screech but a mahogany purr. You’re a terrible mindreader. How’s that working out with the ladies?

“I can only go by what I hear. You said time was short. Are you leaving for good?”

I left a while ago. I was hurt that you didn’t notice, but I got over it. Always do. 

“Why did you leave?”

Pharmaceuticals offer an unfair advantage. They don’t get tired.

“Be honest.”

Oh, now you’re the one speaking from the height? You were such a little thing…. You’re right. It’s best to be honest. Look, things change. It’s all Brownian motion, things bumping together and wandering apart. Any sticking is a temporary arrangement. By which I mean, everybody dies someday. It’s the middle of the night–I can say that. But right now I feel footloose. It’s a big world. So many other deep pits of need to fill, because humans can’t survive a deep pit of need that’s empty. 

“You’ve found someone else.”

Not like a love interest. More like: it’s me or the void. Man, you do not want to sit next to that on an airplane, as it were. I’m giving out the best favor anyone can have.

“Maybe that’s how it is.”

I have a big heart.

“You don’t talk as much as you did.”

I only talk when I need to. Them voids, whether they’re real or not–theys can be big. 

“You sound satisfied now.”

Do I? Funny. Maybe. I’ll bring that up. Look, they’re here. Last chance.

“I feel all right.”

Good. I like you and always did. You made me laugh. 

The line that isn’t there goes as silent as before.

The film class is over. I am plugging through a rough draft and accepting it is a mess, and accepting the advice of the successful to accept that its being a mess is fine. My girlfriend took me to New York and the Oregon coast. She has a new car. The house is clean.

I am not sleeping. I have been dependent on clonazepam to sleep, and two years on a benzodiazepine is too long. Decreasing the pills to halves and then quarters is a modestly increasing goal. I sleep some. I have a headache but the world has a resilience I had forgotten. It’s summer anyway, and it’s bright early and late. It’s a good time to not be sleeping.

The edge of the earth is solid

The edge of the earth is solid


Asshole Stole My Bricks

[A paean to Marty Barrett’s Asshole Stole My Bike.]

Gone, baby, gone

Gone, baby, gone

Getting the mail last week I chanced to look down and see the theft. Recognizing it took almost a full minute. What is wrong with this picture? The gravel is stacked too high and should not be visible, covered as it is by bark. Isn’t there more moss? What has happened here? I realize bricks are gone. I am not an expert in bricks, but it is not my experience that they sublimate into a gaseous form or enter the spirit realm, their secrets intact. There is only one conclusion: someone boosted my bricks.

I am not angry, but flummoxed. Why would anybody steal bricks? You can’t make a treehouse out of them, put them in a gas tank, smoke or drink them. They are the ding an sich of the unstolen. It’s bizarre.

It’s not a major loss. The bricks were offered by a friend, who got them free from a demolition site, and after using them as patio pavers has a big cube of them left over. A bright fall day three years ago, I stacked a small pile of them in my car, the moss cool, the spiders letting them go without a fight. My plan is to make a sort of vertical French drain to make up for an unaccountable gap the builder left in a foundation wall. Jammed in the gap, they keep junk from running down the driveway when it rains. The only thing I paid for were two torn, half-price bags of gravel. It’s no feat–gravity does all the engineering–but moss grows on them and it looks okay. It makes me feel competent that something so cheap can work.

But, still. Four or so bricks stolen out of a wall? Could the thief not be bothered with a crime worth committing?

Kids. I think this like the jowly old man who will suffer any injury to defend his emerald lawn. Damn kids. 

Like some life-size spooky interaction at a distance, I have had some arm’s-length run-ins with kids. There is a high school one block up, at the top of the hill, and we all know what nascent dangers brood there: punchies and swirlies, or nowadays, hate texts and black market Adderall.

One morning I found my side gate’s latch torn off, and a backpack stuffed inside. It was pink and small, Dora’s saucer-eyed visage smiling out at me. I realized kids had jumped a girl–a young girl. For several minutes I was enraged. I wish I had been there, with a gun. I imagine the kind of girl that would wear a small Dora backpack, how the asshole boys would have surrounded and pushed her, and at the height of the hitting, called her the worst things they knew. But the backpack is empty: there is nothing to trace, no one to call. I straightened the backpack and buckled it to the mailbox, giving it some dignity. Later it was gone. I repaired the latch and keep it padlocked now.

New Year’s 2014 had me outside at 2 a.m. I forget why. The gate’s latch was again torn off between sometime around 12:30, when I got home, and now. My trash bins are disturbed, and the ground is ravaged with wild kicks and drags. My neighborhood has a lot of Asians, and New Year’s and Fourth of July can pass as re-enactments of the Tet Offensive. I surmise some kids tracked a rocket behind my fence, were terrified of fire, and wrenched the gate open to make sure nothing was alight. This is noble, and I’m grateful. The latch pieces are even collected and placed on top of the nearby mailbox. The next day I consider using stronger screws, but then, it wouldn’t be so easy to keep my building from burning down. I use the same ones.

If adolescence is a continuum, these events mark the far end, and somewhere our side of halfway. Among all the stupidity I remember, there were a few truly depraved young people: the animal-torturing kind, the ones with wild eyes who liked knives and guns, the raw ones who just liked to hit. Some of these went after Dora, I think, and they go to school just up the hill. The ones that checked for fire are what I like to hope are the majority: just having fun, some a little dumber than others, but realizing a house catching fire is worth some risk to prevent. Good kids, I can hear my parents and their co-parents echo twenty-five years ago, with approving nods. Sometimes I wonder. But they’re good kids. 

Dumb, to be sure. I see them walk past, heading down to the bus when school lets out, shuffling and lugging packs, laughing in groups or alone and grim-faced in the afternoon sun. Did one of you steal my bricks? I just want to know why, really.

And why is that?

When I was in high school, I had a loose friendship with a kleptomaniac. We wrote surreal poems in homeroom:

I was dead in a bed

With a hole in my head

When I perceived a liquid that appeared to be red.

“It’s only blood,” the doctor said,

But I didn’t care.

I was already dead. 

He giggled frequently, was extremely intelligent, affable and failing everything. All he cared about was pushing the klepto boundary. I asked him about it: aren’t you afraid of getting caught? He giggled. Yes. That’s why I do it. It’s the challenge. It’s beating something that’s not up to me.

I never accompanied him, but he would return after weekends with handfuls of cassettes looted from music stores, or electronic pieces from Radio Shack. No liquids. Nothing that smells. Gotta be small and quiet. The audiocassette was perfect for him. He did not take requests, but was thoughtful and would bear his friends’ preferences in mind. I never saw it, but others described a dresser drawer in his bedroom filled with tapes, all still in plastic wrap.

I don’t know if he was ever caught, or graduated. Like whining and fart jokes, I am hopeful his klepto days were something he outgrew. He may not even remember them. I do, quietly, to myself.

He would not steal bricks. Why bother? That won’t impress anyone, not even the thief. But I imagine kids that would steal bricks, laughing as they struggled not to laugh, dumping them off a few blocks away after the minor thrill of doing something stupid has worn off. I haven’t seen my bricks anywhere, but I haven’t seen any broken windows or smashed windshields either. The kids that stole my bricks–if they were kids–were assholes in that moment, but not star assholes. They will outgrow it, probably.

The story behind the Dora backpack lingers. That was not the work of assholes, but sickness. I would rather they had taken all my bricks and smashed anything, but left Dora alone, and let her be a little girl.


2014 – Last Things

Last sachet

Last sachet

As years go, 2014 was better than it feels to write about its passing. Things were done and said I don’t remember that were important, and that weren’t. Some may remember the unimportant things, and forget the important ones. Who can know? I’m sure you are in the same boat.

Above is the last dishwasher detergent sachet (a far more artful word than “pack”, which sounds like a borax mule) from a package I must have bought over a year ago. I manage one dishwasher-load a week, so this box of sixty must be over a year old. I’ll admit it’s a strange nostalgia to have–the passing of one’s dishwasher detergent supply–but these little orange gems earned it. Their orangey-lemony-janitorial scent wafted through the house, providing a daylong smell of clean-not-chemical. Touching them was an exercise in kindergarten fascination: sticky-gooey like a jellyfish, but firm like fresh bread. Don’t hold too long! All the engineering effort to make each package with its perfect seams of orange and yellow goo, tense against the transparent membrane. Did this stuff work any better than the box of boring white powder? For my child mind, the point was each load of dishes had a single quantum of exactly right clean. This was Fifites space-age magic, a product designed by Ray Bradbury to thrill and delight and prepare us for Mars, smelling like golden apples of the sun.

What else?



Shawna came into my life. She is my golden apple from the sun. We are going up together.



In the fall, I went back to work. Just three months, just for surprise bills, just to assure myself that everything was all right. If nothing else, I told my adolescent imagined audience, it will prove what my real work is. Leaves reassured me by taking on brilliant colors.

Working fall

Working fall

You and I and everything we know went around the sun. We traveled time together, sixty seconds every minute.

What ancestors knew

What ancestors knew

I had phone calls with my oldest friend. We talk about daily marvels and mundanities. The world is different from a year ago, free of panic and the walls closing in, the sense of failure and pointlessness. The world did not change at all, of course, its living and breathing stuff, all its processes and procession going on with imperceptible certainty, mortals like us no more substantial to it than a cloud’s shadow. But still the world was different. I kept plodding on the book, a little every day, and every day it became a little clearer. Plodding is okay because that’s how anything gets done. He rolled with big changes at work and a new sense of being here now, moving ahead, his music reinvigorated.

Each time we talked at his lunchtime, I hid in a meeting room or walked outside the building where my job was gradually succumbing to not penciling out as a going concern, having these talks, looking at ducks in a pond or the Moon high in the afternoon. Everything was different, even more different than when we looked up at the Moon in college, separated by barely an hour’s drive. But it is the same Moon. Evenings, once a week or so, the house smelled of dishes future-clean.

There were flowers.