Friday, March 25, 2011

Sitting OnThe Big One

Our building had its annual condo meeting last Monday. One of our members suggested that we clean out the hallway closet below the hallway stairs so that we might be able to store some bottled water in there in the eventuality of an earthquake.

Not a bad idea.

In fact, I would replace the word ‘eventuality’ with ‘inevitability.’

We are sitting on what is called a subduction zone. A subduction zone is an area where two tectonic plates move towards one another and one slides under the other. They move slowly, at about the rate a fingernail grows. Unfortunately, our seduction zone, which is identified with the weighty word Cascadia, is one of the quietest. You really don’t want a quiet subduction zone. Because what that means is that seismic strain has been accumulating without frequent release, as is the case for more seismically active regions such as California, or Japan.

Yes, Japan. If such a catastrophic quake can devastate a huge region of Japan, in a zone of active, unremitting subductioning, imagine what the effects of accumulated seismic stress can produce in a quiet area like Seattle, with its moss-laden balustrades, autistic billionaires, and timorous geeks.

Hence, bottled water. And maybe some canned goods. And a Coleman stove. Happily assuming that this part of our building is structurally sound and will not collapse. Though frankly, if Seattle gets whacked by a n 8.0 or 9.0 quake, very little will be left standing.

And so Roberta and I went to work at cleaning out the closet. You cannot imagine the mess. Well, maybe you can, if you have had experience with Condo building closets. They become internal landfills, deposits for years of confused and lazy tenants not knowing what to do with their inevitable detritus. Paint cans, brooms, mops, pieces of old furniture, pesticides, herbicides, suicides, plastic pipes, small mechanical devices of unknown function, the riotous coitus of tangled cords, water sprinklers, ecstasies of dust, antediluvian spider webs, inarticulate stains, funerary offerings and Egyptian mummies.

Roberta went to the liquor store for some boxes and returned and we began to fill the boxes with paint cans and thinner and anything else with the whiff of death about it. We took it to the hazardous waste site off Aurora on Stone Avenue North where we learned that they will not accept latex paint. We left a few things with the two hazardous waste technicians and returned home with a load of latex. The woman at the hazardous waste site suggested that we use kitty litter to accelerate the drying of the latex. Once the latex paint is dry, you can toss it into the bin for its usual pickup.

The closet looks quite nice now. We’re ready. Ready for bottled water. Canned goods. Coleman stove. The implements of survival. The kind of things the U.S. government was generally quick to dispense during a time of catastrophe. But as Katrina showed, they don’t do that anymore. Private military companies such as Blackwater (now called Xe Services LLC), send their well-armed thugs to protect the property of the rich, but that’s about all. Other than that, you’re on your own kid. Just don’t get caught looting water and milk for your starving kids from the local grocery or they’ll shoot you down.

I’ve been in two earthquakes, both in Seattle. One in 1965, a relatively mild 6.5, when I was a high school senior at Highline High School, sitting at my desk in health ed class. I thought at first that a big truck was going by, shaking the ground and building as it rumbled down 152nd Street in Burien. But it quickly became apparent it was a quake. The girl sitting behind me began to cry. The teacher, a roly-poly man with a crewcut, pressed himself against the blackboard with his arms outstretched and continued to shout “Don’t panic! Don’t panic!”

Three people died from falling debris in that ’65 quake, and the deaths of four elderly women from heart failure were attributed to the quake. 1,712 chimneys were damaged and it is said that the water in the toilets at the top of the Space Needle sloshed out.

The next quake occurred on February 28th, 2001. Called the Nisqually quake, it occurred at 10:54 a.m. and was one of the largest recorded earthquakes in Washington, measuring at 6.8 on the MMS (Moment Magnitude Scale) and lasting 45 seconds. I spent those 45 seconds in the bathroom doorway, believing that doorframes are among the more structurally sound areas in a building. There are two floors above us. I did not want them falling on my head. Roberta was at work, Larry’s Grocery Store, decorating a wedding cake.

Amazingly, that quake did not damage our building, which was constructed in 1962, during the construction of the Seattle World’s Fair. The architecture isn’t much to shout about, but the inner beams and supports are all sound and strong and stable.

I think a lot about Iowa. North Dakota. Nebraska. The plains. The geologically stable plains. But not Texas. Not Oklahoma. Not Kansas. The part of the plains were there are few tornadoes. The safest part of the plains. Where there are apt to be the most progressives, fewest fundamentalist wackos, fewest right wing militias, fewest Huckabee wannabes. I mean, why sit here in Seattle, waiting for that big quake to come?

Well, climate change. That’s another scary scenario to factor into the apocalyptic future. Seattle is one of the areas least susceptible to drought, and our winters are fairly mild. It’s a balancing act. Do we risk sitting on the next big one, in exchange for the relative security of water and mild temperatures, or should we start looking for a new home in Iowa, or North Dakota?

The answer for now is, yes. And hope for a little quake in the meantime, one of those nice, tension-releasing temblors in which nothing breaks, and very little shakes.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Faust On Steroids

The movie Limitless is based on an intriguing notion: no one uses their brain to its fullest capacity. The myth (and it is a myth) that we normally use only 10% of our brain. Psychics like to believe that the unused 90% is a vast, unconscious ocean of paranormal potential. Premonitions, clairvoyance, telepathy, telekinetics, communication with the dead, are all within our purview if we allow ourselves to access that nebulous mist of unused brain function.

Others merely hunger for greater success in life.

I know that feeling: the mental sluggishness of a normal day when forming a thought is like wrestling sandbags into place, or digging a hole in frozen ground, or trying to find a lost contact lens on the sidewalk. That ugly feeling when we are in a conversation and trying to make a positive impression on someone of influence, dazzle them wit and erudition, and we find ourselves nervously fidgeting, painfully self-conscious, laboring to string words together so that they sparkle and light up the room, but it ain’t happening, the magic isn’t there, the entire enterprise is as effortful and futile as trying to find a lost engagement ring in a pool of black sludge. We know the potential is there; we just can’t find it. If there was just a way to tap into that rich, virgin field of unused brain, open the sluice and let it all come rushing out in crystal clarity and nuggets of gold. It is then, if we are not already in a 12 step program, that we begin to wonder where the guy with the martinis is hiding, or if anyone in the room (preferably someone we know) might have some cocaine.

The 10% myth is wrong. Brain imaging research techniques such as PET scans (positron emission tomography) and FMIR (functional magnetic resonance imaging) show that most of the brain is used. No parts of it lie fallow. Much has been said recently about the plasticity of the brain, and its ability to grow and cluster new synaptic connections when certain aspects are put in repeated use, but that’s for another discussion.

That aside, I liked Limitless quite a bit. Bradley Cooper was the perfect choice for the lead character. He’s handsome, and projects a natural intelligence and charm that makes you want to get to know him. He seems like the perfect drinking partner, the kind of guy you want to hang out with who will attract women without putting you in stressful competition or making you feel like a sap. That’s why was so great in The Hangover.

In Limitless, he’s even more likeable. For starters, he’s a loser. He shuffles down the sidewalk in Manhattan with long shaggy hair, disheveled and seedy, and his voice-over narration remarks that if anyone looks like they’re strung out on drugs when they’re not actually strung out on drugs, it’s because they’re a writer.

We see him in his messy, tiny apartment agonizing in front of a computer screen, trying to come up with some sprightly, marketable prose. He has actually already scored a book contract, which is no small achievement, and Roberta spotted a copy of Barthes On Barthes on his book shelf. The guy is an intellect. He’s not a hack writer. He’s not writing supermarket thrillers. He’s the real deal. And he’s suffering.

Cooper goes back and forth from his apartment to the bars. Out on the sidewalk, he runs into his ex-brother-in-law, a slick guy his own age who invites him to share a drink. A former drug dealer, the ex-brother-in-law announces that he’s doing quite well for himself now, he’s in the pharmaceutical industry, and hey, check this out, it’s a new drug called NZT-48, not on the market yet, but FDA approved. He puts a single pill on the table: and this is one of the things I liked best about the movie. The pill. It doesn’t have a color. It’s clear. Completely transparent. It looks like a button. What a perfect metaphor for a drug that allows you to see everything clearly.

And it’s expensive: $800 bucks a pop. All sorts of Faustian red flags go up. And the movie is on its way.

Fortunately, the ex-brother-in-law doesn’t charge Cooper for the pill. And Cooper initially doesn’t even want it. He accepts it reluctantly. The first time he takes it is when he returns to his squalid apartment building to find his very attractive Asian landlady yelling at him about not paying back rent and warning him he’s going to get kicked out onto the street if he doesn’t come up with some rent quick. She’s not so easily duped as her husband. No sir. She's going to stand there and continue to berate and unload on him until he crawls away like the little cockroach he is. Cooper, desperate for a solution, takes the pill. Minutes later he’s in bed with his pretty landlady after helping her with her law school paper. He’s brilliant. He sees patterns in everything. Solutions arrive easily, packaged in thrilling spurts of cerebral joy.

What I didn’t like about the movie was the underlying premise that turns Cooper from a successful midlist author into a savvy Wall Street shark.

What is up with that? Why is there always this assumption that really smart people go to the top of the building and become smartly dressed business tycoons holding forth in glitzy boardrooms? Are we to believe that the sociopaths at Goldman Sachs and their ilk are superior in intellect to the rest of us? That’s bullshit.

Is Donald Trump our modern day Socrates? Is Warren Buffet our Aristotle? Is Bill Gates our Plato? God forbid.

Why couldn’t Cooper’s character have become a sharp intellect whose books alter the course of human history? Enlighten people? Inspire people? Write books that inspire and challenge and transform human consciousness? Write books like Victor Frankl about our desperate search for meaning in a universe of cold indifference and infinite complexity? Come up with an idea to halt climate change? Free people from the oppression and corruption of corporate culture? Why did the entire narrative have to anchor itself in the shallow harbor of obscene, narcissistic wealth?

Well, for one thing, you’d no longer have a thriller. You’d no longer have a movie. Movies are all about action. That’s why they call them movies. They move. The images move. The conflicts move our emotions.

Still. There must be some way Cooper’s intelligence could have gotten him into trouble without bringing in Wall Street. High finance. Robert De Niro as a craggy, volatile, high powered diesel locomotive of unswerving ambition who thrives on cutthroat competition and rides in fancy limousines with tinted windows. Perhaps De Niro could have been a craggy, volatile, high powered diesel locomotive of academic distinction. A professor of philosophy at Harvard. Or a Socrates of the trade unions. Who Cooper comes to aid and abet in a war against totalitarianism.

Why is everything always about money?

Taken strictly as a movie, I really enjoyed Limitless, and would love to see it again. But its premise of intelligence leading to wealth is something I will have to take with a grain of salt.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Dear A.Lien (Letter Two)

Of course you have Internet access! What was I thinking? My bad.

Yes, Wikipedia is quite convenient. I won't bother you with anymore definitions. I sent you a set of encyclopedias, but forgot you live in a liquid medium. Perhaps you can donate them to a charity organization on your planet.

Twelve tentacles. Wow. That's impressive. Can't imagine what that feels like. I've only got the two arms. Two legs. And yes, just one reproductive organ. There are two sexes, male and female, one reproductive organ each. The male reproductive organ is essentially a tube and a sack. The female's is more like a tunnel. Or anemone. Depending on how you look at it. But there I go again. You've got Wikipedia. Look them up: vagina and penis.

What Wikipedia will not tell you, however, is the thousands of years of human anguish, and rapture, wrapped up in those two organs.

When a man is in his twenties, everything is determined by his penis. Where he goes. What he says. Who he chooses to be with. It is what occupies his mind from the moment he wakes up to the moment he goes to bed.

Women, alas, are not driven by their reproductive organ. They are driven by their heart, which is considered to be the seat of feeling in the human animal. This means that the man must make all of his appeals to the woman's heart, her feelings, and not directly make proposals concerning the joining of their two reproductive organs. Most women find this offensive, and frightening.

Yes, as a man, as a young man especially, finding a sexual partner is occupying, frustrating, and leads all too often to feelings of despair and futility. But when a man reaches fifty, ah, things begin to sweeten. The drive relaxes. One can peruse the sexual landscape from a distance. From a balloon, let us say, drifting through the sky, looking down, seeing green pastures on which to land, and taste the air and surrounding scenery, absorb the serenity, without the nagging force within propelling one back to town, where there are bars, and wine and beer and whiskey, and people dancing, and women swaying under the influence of strong spirits.

If I paint a clumsy picture concerning questions of reproduction, I am sorry. I must also hasten to add that reproduction really isn't the primary reason for the joining of these organs. It just feels good. Fantastic, in fact. Then as one grows older and has the good fortune to maintain sweet and enduring relations with a member of the opposite sex, feelings deepen, and the sexual impulse assumes a fainter, more dulcet tint, a softer hue.

I am eager to hear how you manage with your four sexual organs. Please feel free to describe them, however you might. I am all ears.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Death Is Fondled Like A Gun

The circus is in town I wear a brass hat for doing the dishes my belt buckle shines I have punched a hole in the wall I need the lucidity of water I wonder what sort of fugue best supports this supposition there is more to Louisiana than you will ever know.

Perception is walking among flowers and bugs while enjoying the resonance of bells or the twang of an electric guitar I dilate among the hawthorn whenever I hear an alarm go off in a book about goldfish and now a new noise twists and convulses in the air but the telephone is silent.

The radio thunders in spectacular despair exhumed lines of dead poetry and the upstairs neighbor a tall man from Taiwan gives me a wide-eyed look of bewilderment maybe because I wrote him a ten-page letter explaining all the reasons for not parking so close to the trash bins but I said nothing sometimes I clash with my own intentions but please believe me when I say that I am trying to develop an improved rapport with ambiguity.

For example, last night a moth fluttered in the beam of a headlight crying out that it was more colorful and wild than a Fauve painting I wished it an eternal life unequalled by worms.

Autumn balloons rise into a lopsided sky while I play a violin on the moon and parables manufactured by life swarm below the surgical incision of a dead thermometer.

Indentation represents absence in a bowl of salad as the biology of a mirror which has been boiled to an intuitive red congeals into taillights and is glued to an armchair.

Dear Ezra I have glimpsed your art but the hospital is no longer accepting patients.

If any of this is a reflection of my attitude toward rain I will fold it like a sweater and put it in a drawer.

Carry a pile of laundry without modifying anything carry it in a cup of coffee comb your hair open your vest of red velour to a mongrel abstraction and a moose and an eye translate the communion of colors into a frequency vague as a gallon of fog wine for the eyes vivid as a fire in Cézanne the armchair feels wonderful bite a cracker.

There is nothing larger than denial the car accelerates an ecstasy raises a book of poetry oh look the Louvre is open fold the light into a highway there is a broom on the floor murmuring hair let yourself dissolve into eyeballs mass is a raw example of abstraction and somewhere in Africa everyone itches to see a Corot and do cartwheels through life birds are complex creatures they acquire this state by disembarking on so many flights and a simulacrum of April grips a curl of clouds while the sandman hammers a nest.

All the paintbrushes are hooked to the stepladder because I am too sensitive for technical details.

Have confidence in your hunger contemplate the actuality of fire and blood while pressing the buttons in an elevator vividness ignites beauty a paintbrush full of paint a Cubist full of light a bone full of songs a pain full of pleasure a splendor full of iron.

A larynx is a guitar of the throat instinctive as pleasure smear the wax on all the furniture electricity imbues consciousness the word ‘spoon’ is but a handful of vowels and consonants it invites the metamorphosis of ducks a flock of mallards shattering space.

Existence is a radical proof of nipples each voyage is a complex mosaic of daydream and gallantry floating is easy and swimming is fluid Picasso painting a dog.

Anger pumps me into action bacteria swarms like punctuation a volcano hurls rocks everything tastes bitter as grapefruit in the morning.

Unprecedented herds of elk spitting leprechauns a dog barks a mirror reflects tuna and jingles the moss of a thrush an oboe augments the intensity the clay is lyrical accept your giant it is a ghost I am always baffled by everything but in a very eloquent manner echoes in a hothouse express the enigma of denim and a clean well-lit room full of luminous balls maneuvers space like a tongue loaded with parables of potatoes descriptions without end act like a phonograph a bear eating pineapples surrounded by beautiful planets the lobster is autonomous the sensation of bleeding from the neck makes me feel Parisian that is to say chiaroscuro.

Infinity crashes into a hole and rolls around like a birthday cake for a wizard the abalone is delicious stir yourself with a spoon of poetry ablution is a noise it is a pink emotion anyone can arrange a ceremony with a black emotion and a canister of propane the incentive to see it happen drags its grammar into the light an emotion palpable as a boat trembles violently put a little plaster on it Byzantine shadows I prefer not to reveal my injury it is a ball of spun sugar you can always change your mind in a dialogue teeming with geometry all life has the capacity to float water and muscles go together there is a pulse in the wrist there are veins in the hand rivers of blood each conquest ruins our swords a surge of unexpected emotion climbs through my bones like a cloud full of light a pair of soft leather gloves beans growing by a wall apples in sweet development the appetite sharpens maple beams support the roof death is fondled like a gun.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Some Good Advice

This morning I awoke wishing I had a Geiger counter. Thomas Hartmann had just explained that if the spent fuel pools at Fukushima Daiichi were to overheat and start boiling, huge quantities of radioactive vapor would be released into the air. Prevailing winds are headed east… toward the west coast. Seattle. San Francisco. Coos Bay. The Aleutian Islands. I also learned, via the local news on KPTK, that people were gobbling up kelp and potassium iodide tablets. The health food stores had run out. Everyone is freaked out by a giant radiation cloud drifting over the northwest.

Well, I’m freaked out, too. Freaking out is something I do well. It rarely solves anything, but the drama fills vacuums of churning, futile, fatalistic worry, fosters an illusion of having a modicum amount of control over my life, and provokes rants and soliloquies of gargantuan magnitude. A full 9.0 on the Richter Scale of my emotional life. Particularly invisible things; things like radiation poisoning, and the invisible hand of capitalism.

So how effective are kelp and potassium iodide at protecting the human body from radiation poisoning? Should I been down at the shores of Puget Sound grabbing up handfuls of kelp to make kelp soup? Kelp enchiladas? Kelp à la parisienne with chopped leeks and a sprig of thyme?

Should we be loading the car up and heading east? Should we be putting together a bucket list? Heading to Cle Elum or Wenatchee to load up on as yet undepleted supplies of iodide tablets?

Too much iodine is also toxic, so that not may be an ideal solution.

Timothy Church at the Washington Department of Health says that the best defense against radiation isn’t anything that can be eaten, but good old-fashioned evacuation. So far as I know, there has not been a single mention of evacuation here in Seattle. But it’s still early. Last I heard (via CNN) is that Japanese helicopters would be dropping cold water on the spent fuel pools as a strategy of last resort. That did not sound reassuring. So while an evacuation plan at this stage still sounds extreme, it is not something to dismiss as something that happens to other people on TV.

I have the queasy feeling Roberta, Toby, and I may be spending weeks in a high school gymnasium somewhere, sleeping on cots with a minimal amount of clothing, while Red Cross officials scurry about. But where, exactly, would that be? How far east? At what point would a radiation cloud dissipate into a negligibly toxic vapor? Idaho? Montana? Minnesota? New York?

Sometimes thoughts just race around in the head like greyhounds. Nothing like a mode of action takes form. An invisible parabolic antenna grows out of my head and I wait to hear whatever advice might be circulating in the atmosphere.

So far, the best advice has come from manager Aryn Perea at Super Supplements. "First, don't take iodine for more than 10 days because it's toxic at that point," she says. "If a store is out, you can also get iodine from Asian foods with seaweed and kelp in it. But really, just stop freaking out."

Monday, March 14, 2011

Les Mots Vitraux

Les mots sont comme les vitraux des cathédrales du moyen âge ; leurs fables de verres s’endurcissent quand la neige de l’hiver fond, restent solides quand les flaques du printemps sont tirées dans le ciel et sont formées dans les nuages, puis se condensent en pluie et deviennent flaques à nouveaux, comme les mots sont élevés par la lumière de la philosophie pour devenir pensées, les spéculations et les méditations translucides comme la brume, les paraboles et les anges lumineux avec la révélation, qui se condensent et deviennent des flaques des mots, ou les vitraux.

Des vitraux ont été faits avec de petits morceaux de verre disposés pour former des motifs. Les motifs racontaient des histoires prises de la bible. La Passion, la mort et la Résurrection du Christ. L’histoire du Christ depuis l’Annonce faite à Marie jusqu’à son entrée triomphale à Jérusalem. La vie de saint Jean L’évangéliste, qui sont inspirées de différentes légendes qui ont vu le jour dès le IIe siècle. La vie terrestre de la Vierge Marie et comment, après sa mort, elle fut élevée au ciel avant d’être couronnée par son Fils.

Les morceaux de verre ont été liés par des bandes de fil et soutenus par un cadre rigide. Les vitraux excluaient toutes les vues du monde externe de sorte que les idées et les événements d'un monde interne et visionnaire soient plus exaltants.

Les mots, qui sont les morceaux d'air, les morceaux de signification, les morceaux de son et dimage, liée par des bandes de grammaire et de syntaxe, font beaucoup de mêmes choses. Ils racontent des histoires, ils obscurcissent une feuille de livre blanc avec la couleur de nos sentiments, ou chargent l'air de la lumière qui brûle dans nos corps. Ils illuminent nos vies avec des provocations d'une existence plus élevée. Ils bloquent la lumière froide d'un soleil d'hiver rude. Ils remplissent nos vies intérieures de couleurs de ciel, de puissance d'espoir, et de richesse de la pauvreté.

Ils font n'importe quoi que nous voulons qu'ils fassent. Et ainsi l’analogie échoue. Les mots ne sont pas comme les vitraux. Pas comme le verre du tout. Particulièrement le verre imprégné avec la couleur. Les mots sont des mots. Glissant, passager, périlleux. Mais quelles hallucinations fantastiques. Quelles cathédrales de l'imagination. Quelles cascades de couleur. Quelles histoires étranges des voleurs et des anges, des vierges et des veuves, des fous et des poètes.