Friday, May 28, 2010

The Orange Alligator (5)

My dear hairdresser, Marsha, is headed for a cruise in the Bahamas. She had luscious streaks of pink layered into to her auburn-hennaed hair. She smiled when I complimented her. I have to be careful in swimming pools, she said. The dye can leak into the water and make pink streaks.

Fractal flash: a sort of "Perils of Pauline" theme-and-variation of the psychedelic orange-brown sludge now swirling across a hundred miles of the Louisiana coastline. A couple of days ago, NBC news commentator Brian Williams--yes, the gorgeous Brian, never an alarmist--declared that there is enough oil in this particular reserve to continue gushing throughout our lifetimes. A chilling thought. Sludge now penetrating the marshes is coating everything. Pelicans in Barataria Bay are hobbling around unable to fly. Six months ago, these pelicans had been taken off the endangered species list.

Right now all eyes are glued on operation "Top Kill," in which specially prepared mud is being force-fed into the well to push back on the oil. It can succeed only if the strong pressure of the oil spewing out of the opening can be overwhelmed by an even greater counter-pressure of mud that is being pushed in to clog up the pipe--without busting the broken pipe any more, which of course would make everything much worse. Then the opening must be capped with cement. The technique has been used on land as a plugging technique, but never tried miles beneath the sea.

Twice in the same day this week I got the I Ching hecagram of Calculated Waiting (5). "You may be facing some kind of threat...that could greatly affect you. If you worry about will waste valuable energy through agitation. Do not become agitated by your sense of an impending problem...Destiny is at work here, so nourish one another with cheerfulness and reassurance instead."

It's easier said than done. I want to inhabit this reassuring and cheerful place, but the truth is, a lot of the time I'm freaked. My state is closer to the Two of Swords Tarot card I just pulled a few minutes ago: "Fear and uncertainty about the future add to the sensation of imbalance and insecurity. Blocked emotions are causing you to feel tense and out of sorts."

How long can the "clean-up" work go on, especially with the oil overwhelming the water non-stop? Unrefined crude oil, it turns out, contains high levels of lead, benzene, mercury, and cadmium, all highly toxic substances. Toxic fumes will soon spread for hundreds of miles and make people sick, which has already started to happen. Ultimately nobody will be able to live or work near this. The whole Gulf coast could soon become a dead zone if the oil can't be contained soon. "Did they manage to plug up the hole yet, daddy?" Malia asked her father this morning, while he was in the bathroom shaving.

BP had been warned about the risks of deep-water drilling in the Gulf, in a May 2000 environmental analysis, according to Maureen Dowd in the New York Times. The report advised that "a deep-water blowout of this magnitude in the US Gulf of Mexico could easily turn out to be a potential show stopper." It seems, however, that the Department of Minerals Management Service (MMS) removed those caveats in the final report, just as they also deemed a remote-controlled shut-off switch an unnecessary expense for drilling companies several years ago.

They knew the risks, and they ignored them. Out there in the oil-free blogosphere, some people are calling for freezing the assets and jailing some of the top corporate officials involved in the spill. One reader suggested that BP execs should be forced to assist in the clean-up without safety protection (along with the fisherman) and to live on the Louisiana coast for the duration of the clean-up.

Meanwhile, BP's chief executive, Tony Hayward, told reporters after walking along the oil-soaked Fourchon Beach that he had underestimated the possible environmental effects. "I'm as devastated as you are by what I've seen here today," he said. "We are going to do everything in our power to prevent any more oil from coming ashore, and we will clean every last drop up and we will remediate all of the environmental damage." Sounds like a plan.

"We used to live and die without any sense of the planet getting older, or mother earth getting older, living and dying," Martin Amis wrote in "London Fields." "We used to live outside history. But now we're all coterminous. We're inside history now all right, on its leading edge, with the wind ripping past our ears. Hard to love, when you're bracing yourself for impact."

"As you know, Suzi," my friend Bill Rutherfoord writes, "I suspect that stanching the planet's oily wound is beyond anyone's capability. We've always...had the capacity to kill the earth, and now it seems we've harpooned it once too often. To me, all the dead planets orbiting the sun along with the living earth, have strongly suggested a potential fate for our anomalous planet, Perhaps we'll soon join the celestial majority of spinning, rust-colored purgatories, enveloped in turbulent, gaseous firmaments. I'm ashamed." Bill

These days we will most certainly need guides through hell, as we try our best to navigate updated versions of Dante's "Inferno."

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Orange Alligator (4)

The reddish chunks are showing up everywhere. Seeing the images of coastal desecration, a word, suddenly remembered from childhood, pops into my head: it's DISGUSTIPATING. Disgusting and nauseating and constipating to have to look at this. Voices speaking on TV: This could do us in. The President needs to step up. If BP can't fix this, they need to get out of the way. Obama is dragging his feet, rags Sarah Palin, while brainiac Michael Steele is complaining that government should have stepped in immediately, even though that is exactly what they did. The air is thick with burning oil and lawsuits. James Carville and Chris Matthews -- two reliable Obama defenders -- have issued withering critiques of the administration's "lackadaisical" response, complaining that they seem to be inconvenienced by it all, and demanding a Plan B, given that BP's efforts are not succeeding.

The criticisms can't be contained any better than the shit-color oil. It's all pollution. Bobby Jindall screaming from his helicopter, the government needs to do something, while some 22,000 people are out there, working on it, 24/7. But trying to lock the barn door after the horse has run away isn't working. Even the robots are finding it too hard. We have run out of meaningful solutions, because there never were any. If there is something more the government could possibly do, it would already have been done. Nobody wants to stare into the true shit face of the Medusa. Instead we get pyrotechnic displays of outrage. Minute by minute, day by day, each bit of the world we lose becomes a chip off the old sublime. Don't bother to cry, mate, because it won't help.

I sent an email to Bill McKibben, hoping to elicit a response:

Dear Bill, I recently read your new book and found it remarkable, for the reasons described below. I am taking the liberty of sending you a group of 4 blogs I have written incorporating my responses to the book, and to the oil spill, which occurred just as I was finishing reading it. I am wondering how you feel about what is happening now, and if you would consider responding to these blogs in some way--I would definitely want to use any of your thoughts in another post. Please don't feel any pressure if you are too busy, or whatever. But if this grabs you, I would love to engage. Thanks for your excellent work. Most sincerely, Suzi Gablik

On May 20, 2010, at 3:32 AM, Bill Mckibben wrote:
Gretings from inner Mongolia

These are very good meditations especially after two days when I saw the worlds largest coal mine and the largest solar hot water heat plant. Im glad i have my work at to keep me busy!

Sent from my iPad

I wrote back. Thanks so much for responding. I definitely understand your feeling about how actively doing something constructive is the only antidote to massive feelings of helplessness and despair. By the way, FYI, Resurgence has just accepted a shorter version of my review of "Eaarth" for publication. Happy times in Mongolia!

“You can’t sleep no more; that’s how bad it is,” said John Blanchard, an oyster fisherman whose life has been upended by the monstrous oil spill fouling an enormous swath of the Gulf of Mexico. He shook his head. He was speaking to Bob Herbert, a New York Times columnist. “My wife and I have got two kids, 2 and 7. We could lose everything we’ve been working all of our lives for.”

"No one knows how much of BP’s runaway oil will contaminate the gulf coast’s marshes and lakes and bayous and canals, destroying wildlife and fauna — and ruining the hopes and dreams of countless human families," writes Herbert. "What is known is that whatever oil gets in will be next to impossible to get out. It gets into the soil and the water and the plant life and can’t be scraped off the way you might be able to scrape the oil off of a beach."

Even the Nazis couldn't accomplish that, opines Anne Frank.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Orange Alligator (3)

The trouble with obsessing over collapse," Bill McKibben writes in the second half of "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet," "Is that it keeps you from considering other possibilities." He was chiding writers like Jim Kunstler and Jared Diamond, dubbed as "doomers" or "dystopians" in a recent New Yorker article, whose writing McKibben classifies as "collapse porn." "Collapse," he writes, "can become as much of an ideological fixation as growth." It's something I've been concerned with myself, when I write here. But that was before the oil starting gushing uncontrollably in the Gulf. Computer models are now showing the oil is dangerously close to the loop current which would carry it into the Atlantic Ocean.

We're not entirely out of possibilities, McKibben suggests in his book. But when the engines start to fail, we have to stop being progress junkies, trying to fly the plane higher. Instead we need to learn to manage our descent and aim for a relatively graceful decline. "From now on," he argues, "we're about KEEPING what we've got. MAINTENANCE is our mantra." We need stability and security more than we need dynamism and growth and progress and speed. Those times are over. We need to understand that we are a country that has a chronic disease that slows us down, a country being sapped by global warming and the end of oil and a flailing economy. We need to not squander what we have.

Not squandering what we have becomes a surreal injunction as we hemorrhage precious oil reserves, while simultaneously suffocating the sea and its inhabitants. This is surely a double whammy, and it may well be the case that there's no way we can actually withstand it. McKibben's book, only a few weeks ago, seemed like a massive leap away from the notion of "future threat" into a more immediate reality. In light of the events transpiring in the Gulf, that leap may already be obsolete.

My good friend Bob Walker recently forwarded some thoughts to me that he had just written to someone else, a friend who was stressing over the latest Supreme Court nomination charade. Bob wrote him back: "All this is much ado about nothing. The real crisis is ongoing in the Gulf of Mexico, and could prove to be an extinction level event. There are reports this morning that the BP/TransOcean/Haliburton oil spill is orders of magnitude greater than anyone first admitted. The reservoir beneath DeepWaterHorizon has been described as “colossal.” That is precisely why BP chose that spot on which to drill. A prominent US geologist said that at the present rate of discharge, the spill "would take years to deplete." That merits repeating: The spill could continue for years. Matthew Simmons, retired chair of the energy-industry investment bank Simmons & Company, said that BP and the US military's engineers are more or less clueless about cutting off the flow.”

Last weekend I had my monthly salon gathering, and everyone arrived in a jolly mood, in what seemed like a happy place--as if all was well with the world. I had determined beforehand not to bring up the subject of the oil spill--unless someone else introduced it first. Nobody did. In the end, I basked instead in the feeling of normalcy and human conviviality. I was able somehow in that atmosphere to cross back over from the far side of the looking glass and reclaim my membership in the human race, only because other people had not been as laid low by all this as me. They didn't especially realize it, but they actually rescued me from Hades, a kidnapped Persephone, and released me, with their focus on other things. I definitely don't want to go back to the underworld. It was a teaching moment: I saw that avoidance, even of potential death, can be instead the embrace of life. Avoidance does not necessarily mean careless indifference.

So I will in future follow the counsel of the I Ching, to remain gently aware that the mood [in this case, the threat to survival of life on this planet] is definitely there, and to simply watch it as one might watch a fish in the tank. "While we are not able to get rid of the mood immediately, such means enable us to keep it from getting out of hand during critical moments."

If massive suffering is truly what is on the cards for us,, then at least there is one consolation: it hasn't happened yet. In the meantime, the I Ching advises that "the time calls for self -discipline, not self-pity."

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Orange Alligator (2)

In response to my last blog, I received an email from my friend Bill Rutherfoord, noting that the orange color of the alligator offering is just the right industrial color for this hazardous moment [of the Gulf oil spill]: he is safety orange. He then went on to say he thinks most people intuit that the enormity of the problem exceeds our technological expertise, as well as our feeble, lying morality. We need help.

This has been my terror from the start--that BP et al. won't be able to fix this. However, saying that out loud, or even thinking it quietly to myself, does not help anything. Which is probably why, last weekend, I was feeling kind of crazy and still am, jittery like those animals who sense the oncoming arrival of a tsunami before it arrives, and become agitated. E-mailing back and forth with Bill, I described some of these feelings to him. How, in my previous dabblings in possible 2012 scenarios [for end times], there was never a specific picture, just intuitions of large, deadly trends all converging. As long as there wasn't a specific picture, the whole thing remained somehow abstract, a surmise. I could bet against myself, hoping that I might be wrong: 2012 was just a nutty Mayan scenario that had been updated for our time. It was not necessarily true.

Unfortunately, the oil spill has brought with it a devastating picture of how the end could happen: seas inexorably fill up with oil. The thought struck with the force of lightning. "I have great faith in American ingenuity," said my Australian friend, Simone Paterson, trying her best to reassure me. "They'll get it fixed, Sooz. If they could put a man on the moon, they can do this." Somehow it seems as if the future of everything now depends on which one of us turns out to be right.

"We have rigged our own oceans, submerged our own futures, suffocated our own progeny, and slide now to our slick destiny. To whom can I cry that twisting off the caps of my beautiful tubes of color I now think of OIL PAINTS as the first two words of a disaster headline?" wrote my painter friend, Jane Vance.

Right now it is hard for me to speak with other people, hard to act like everything is A-okay, business as usual. I feel like Alice, having stepped through the looking glass into a parallel reality. To talk about how I really feel is likely to either wig someone out, or cause them to recoil at what they take to be my exaggerated craziness. Neither seems a good idea. I was put on notice by an old high school friend with whom I reconnected a few years ago. She retired recently from school teaching, and has thrown herself passionately into becoming a poet, taking workshops, master classes, competing for prizes. I sent her the first "Orange Alligator" blog attached to a normal email.

"As for the world," she wrote me back, "would you believe, I've stopped watching The News Hour, just glance or scan through The Times, daily, and catch an occasional NPR bit of news, unlike the way I used to be. I don't know if it's reading and writing poetry that has me so detached from the world, or what. I haven't even read any novels in months, which is also not like me. Oh, well." She didn't mention the blog. She sounded really blissful, if oblivious, while back at home here, I am feeling more and more like Anne Frank, doing the diary thing, while waiting to see if the dreaded Nazis will actually show up. I don't want to destroy other people's happiness or peace of mind. But I am struggling with trying to integrate levels of fear and grief such as I have never known before.

"I'm on my way to bed," Bill wrote me again later, "but suffice it to say that your strong feelings are not irrational. Your inclination to withhold the extent of your anxiety about the state of the world when dealing with seemingly oblivious people is just right...There is an immense learning curve that most people will remain well behind. Hang tough, and continue to watch in your own way. Conscientiously looking at the planet as it sickens is a little like [Marina] Abramovic's endurance exercise where she gazed at, and endured the gazes, of others. Watch watchman watch...The Anne Frank model strikes me as exactly right for this dangerous time, and I too am a little at odds with those who seem oblivious to the gravity of the global condition...People can't be told too much too fast, or they' dismiss it as paranoia."

Ultimately there is no way to know how this "thing" ought to be met, what responsibility any of us may bear in a crime so vast that it threatens the very future we all take for granted. In his new incarnation as agent orange, Virgil, who lives on borrowed Jewish jokiness anyway, suggests I start rubbing my shoes with butter to preserve the leather. And sit on a white cat's third eye.

A former student, Samantha Barnum, commented on the blog: "As I try to think about how to do the most good, promote maximum progress, make the best revolution, I remember that sometimes the smallest gestures can still be powerful. Like sending someone an orange alligator in the mail. It might not stop the Gulf oil leak, but it is inspiring, nonetheless. And so much better than gallows humor."

The mention of gallows humor brings Virgil back again:

How do crazy people go through the forest? They take the psychopath.
How do you get Holy Water? You boil the hell out of it.
What do Eskimos get from sitting on the ice too long? Polaroids.

Gallows humor has its place, you have to admit, especially if it's you on the gallows.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Orange Alligator

Yesterday I was the recipient of a surprise offering in the mail from a friend who lives in Black Mountain, NC: a small, orange plastic alligator. "Here is a little friend for Virgil," the message said. "Your blog is the only thing keeping me sane these days." The gift came, so to speak, out of the blue and just in the nick of time, given as how I feel anything but sane, myself, these days.

Witnessing, and then writing incessantly, about the monstrous upheavals and chronic woes of our country and of the planet (which now happen on a daily basis and are irrevocably linked) has all but eclipsed the luminous edge I would much have preferred to live by. But that hardly seems possible now. For a few seconds, it was as if the orange alligator reconstituted that lost edge, serving as a reminder, because in these dark days, my brackish soul is definitely more like that broken oil rig in the Gulf. It just keeps on gushing out raw pessimism. But with this tiny sign, the universe has somehow let me know, that in my moments of acute discouragement, someone is out there listening, and feeling helped by what I write. I can tell you, it's not easy writing about these things, because it means keeping close contact with some pretty deadly stuff.

The sight of the Grand Ole Opry stage in Nashville sitting in ten feet of river water, diesel fuel, and sewage, was not exactly a world-class cheerer-upper this week either. Nor was my mood improved by reading Jim Moore's blog on Huffington Post about the oil spill. He spoke directly to my greatest fear: we might be powerless this time to stop the oil flowing out from the seabed in the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, chances are good, he says, that we do not possess the technology, and that humans can't even function at the sea level where the leaks are, to plug them up--so robots have been enlisted to do the job. "If there is no plug placed in the hole," Moore writes, "it is not inconceivable that no part of the planet's oceans will escape harm." Just before writing this, I read breaking news that the said robots had failed in the attempt to close the leaking valve. The orange in the photo seen above is oil, slowly colonizing the sea.

Meanwhile economic reports have just come out again with small signs of positive improvement. The tone is measured as usual, but upbeat. No one mentions the spill's potential to wipe out coastal businesses around the Gulf for years to come--or its far-reaching potential to cancel out all previous, or any further, sputtering increments of the economic recovery we have managed to eke out thus far. The stock market, meanwhile, was inexplicably jittery as a cat on a hot tin roof. Nobody could say exactly why, but a commission has been formed to investigate the cause. So far at least, nobody has asked me. If they do, what I'll tell them is how really great it was to get a blazing orange alligator just as the lights went out.

Next week I will write more about the second half of Bill McKibben's book, "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet."