Monday, March 19, 2012

The Wisdom of Children

Down the sidewalk, a little boy held his mother's hand and pointed up at the store window and asked,"Mommy, where do all the mannequins go?"
She paused and her eyebrows crossed. "Them?" She pointed at the window.
I raised my hand slightly. "Ma'am, I -" But she pulled him away from me. I really think I could have helped her out. I had been wondering the same thing earlier that day, after noticing that nobody in this city was making eye contact.
You see, there is this landform in North America called The Landfill. It's everywhere, ubiquitous, like landslides, sand dunes, floodplains. The largest such formation known is 2200 acres, in Fresh Kills, New York, but most are less than one acre. They are most often associated with sand or gravel deposits but may be found in quarries and abandoned shipping canals. A great many of the small landfills tend to arise in the rear of residential properties in a shallow ravine hidden by woods. Recently a theory has been advanced that most urban landscapes are actually large landfill provinces, or "Megalandfills", a term coined by Groveland University geophysicist L. Melton Harbinginer in a paper published in 1997 in Waste Street Journal. If true, then the largest Landfill on earth is well over 5.5 million acres, some 2525 times larger than the formation at Fresh Kills. This discovery has led to a new discipline in the field of restoration ecology called Landfill Conservation and Management or LCM for short. Groveland leads the way, producing hundreds of graduates of the Ecology Program that serve on collaborative multi-tiered strategic goal-oriented integrated resource and structure planning committees (CMTSGOIRSPC) in major urban zones across North America. Recently, Europe has shown interest in this model and have incorporated the curriculum in universities in Germany and Austria. The LCM movement has already seen some impressive results, being credited with the preservation of dozens of imperiled urban landfills in the Western Hemisphere. Carefully selected, these protected sites contain a broad diversity of the unique and significant environmental characteristics inherent in urban landforms, characteristics including disenfranchisement, abandonment, structural decay, waste hardening, community fragmentation, maintenance glut, gentrification, desolation, criminality, depersonalization, and air and water degradation. Oh, and stress.
I am having a hard time typing right now because my left eyelid is ticking like crazy.
Megalandfill Theory is supported by three lines of evidence: 1) The landfill debris field deposition has been episodic, occurring in spasms over the course of several hundred years, 2) The landfills occur over a thin and unstable structural base, and 3) The fragile base leads to an increasingly fractured infrastructure that releases tremendous amounts of toxic gasses, foremost of which are hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, and chlorinated carbons. Normally these provinces are biologically dead zones and most are in an expansive phase, invading surrounding landscapes by producing synthetic allelotoxins that inhibit the growth, reproduction and survival of biota in the invaded landscape. Exceptions are found in several urban zones along the eastern seaboard that have robust and broad-scale populations of antibiotic-resistant microorganisms. These exceptions have been cited by critics of the expansive phase theory as evidence that the dead zones are actually in contraction. Hence, a captive breeding program of antibiotic-resistant microorganisms is being developed with the goal of inoculating 25 major urban areas in North America by the year 2020. Progress is well underway.
Well, the mother set her son up straight and looked him in the eye. I could see that she didn't know what to say to her little son, so she just said, "The garbage man takes him away." And so the boy started to cry. "If you don't keep quiet, he will come for you too." And he cried louder and she whisked him down the street, his feet dragging behind him.
Ah, parenting. Let me in there and show this kid the meaning of life. Here's what I would say: I would tell that child that a Landfill, why son, that's a term, a euphemism really, meaning "Your neighbor's yard where you dump your trash." See, kid, these things are found everywhere - everyone dumps his trash in his neighbor's yard. It has become a civil right, an inalienable, self-evident, inborn property of the individual, and by the way you are behaving son, you well know that the individual is the Supreme Being. So go ahead, indulge yourself. My house is your house? No, it's better than that: Everybody's house is your house and you just handed us eviction papers.
That's a fact: Any child today is well aware of the meaning of Property Rights. Don't let that cherubic face fool you. This they can understand. Landfills are produced directly and indirectly; toss it out the window of a speeding car, overboard into the ocean, or wash your hands of the deed by hiring some palooka wearing a hazardous materials suit to take your sealed containers from the curbside and transport them to some big hole in the ground that glows with the Will-O-The-Wisp at night. High school kids park there cars there at night and drink by the light. The girls think it is romantic. See, if that kid was around I would tell him that the only reason people dig holes is to fill them; we create headaches so we can sell aspirin; isn't that what they mean by recycling nowadays? I'm pretty sure. Remember, that child knows that the ditch, the ocean, the big hole, it's all his property. It is manifestly plain to himself just as clear as he is a boy. I think one of his lawyers just called and said that if land were yours, you would have a deed. And what's it matter anyhow, they put a lien on everything you own.
Something else every kid knows is Magical Forces. Listen to his explanations for some of the mysteries of life: If it is raining at his house it is raining all over the earth. If you repeat something enough times it comes true. If you say something loud enough you are right. If you close your eyes the monster goes away. If you forget something it never existed. This latter one is actually the Fifth Law of Thermodynamics, something Isaac Newton discovered when he was old, daft, and penniless, languishing in an alley off Jermyn Street in London: Matter is destroyed when we delete it from our memory. Thus, forget it and we can believe with all sincerity that it never existed in the first place. Thus, we gain absolution from guilt, absence of responsibility, knowledge of nothing - ah, true freedom, the life of a child!
This confounded twitch. I can hardly see the typewriter.
So give him the answers, lady. Steer him right. Who hasn't wondered what becomes of the storefront mannequins when they get old and feeble? I mean, every decade sees a different style, a different species of mannequin. First they were made of wood, carved by tradesmen in the Mannequin Guild. Then the plaster version was introduced, fashioned in molds by artisans in Europe. These were the ones I knew as a young child. There was an explosion of these during the great post-war economic metastasis, filling in shops, stores and malls, like a wave of immigrants fleeing famine. Most were chipped from handling, exposing the white subdural space. The men had blonde, cornrow hair, sort of like those old Soviet Propaganda posters. Mannequin Factory Workers Unite! The women were all bald, but so were all the women in the neighborhood I grew up in, so it was nothing strange.
Later, they introduced plastic versions, mass produced on assembly lines in three-story, red brick factory buildings with broken windows set along stagnant, algae-choked waterways filled with old refrigerators, tires, dead fish, and iridescent blue foam. These looked like giant Barbie Dolls. But then, Barbie Dolls looked like miniature mannequins, so I don't know which came first. I can hear the child blurt out, "Both! It's convergent development."
That is so cute.
Lately, they are still made of plastic but are chromed and are missing limbs, even headless. Sort of like medieval armor, like a Brigandine. This is our cue, fellow worker/consumers; don't be left behind. It could be that next year's Paris Fashion Shows will feature chain mail. Yes, the Great Helm makes a return, and the Cuirass and Vambrace and Greave. Urban armor, for the world of full-contact business. Shop competitively, shop in security.
Any child also knows about Natural Selection. He would assert that the mannequins had families and that the children grow up to have mannequins of their own. So, it logically follows that the unregulated market forces that bring economic growth would ensure that the children would be more prosperous than their parents. A fitter form. In which case, it is a natural progression, an improvement for the species to ascend from wood to plaster to plastic to chrome, from fully-limbed mannequins to limbless ones. The appendages outlived their usefulness, and they atrophied through disuse until all that remained were tiny vestiges embedded deep within the torso. Like whales, the modern mannequin does not need to walk or climb trees. Like, yes, like office workers, hands numbed by repetitive typing and filing motions, moving around on wheeled office chairs, rolling from the file cabinet to the wastebasket, back and forth, back and forth for eight hours a day, sitting in meetings to talk about meetings, sitting in taxis, stalled in traffic, standing motionless on elevators staring vacantly at the mirrored walls, avoiding eye contact, even with themselves.
Now the left side of my face is twitching.
Why is it that, with the profusion of mannequins, decades of rigorous archaeological excavations in the urban landfill strata have failed to produce more than a few fragmentary remains of the species? Why is there a near total absence of mannequins in landfills? Where are the transition species, with diminished cranial size, mixtures of plaster and wood, arms without hands? Archaeologists are "shocked at the silence of the fossil record" and "yawning gaps in the sequence" and so are we. What few discoveries they have made are fragmentary and inconclusive and subject of heated debates. Where did they all go? Habeus corpus; show me the body.
This is where the child starts to cry again. And my master parenting skills are on display. I stoop down and look him in the eye. I pour a little honey on the words and say it sweetly: "Now don't cry, I am just being a little sarcastic, boy," but he doesn't know that word yet. "Aah, you see kid, sarcasm, it's a defense mechanism, a quasi-dissociative response to the grim reality, the sardonic truth that the odds one faces in life are ultimately insurmountable, you can't beat them, I mean, the reality is, little man, it only gets worse. So face it: This is the best day of the rest of your life - " and he rears back and and socks me in the eye.
I watch him running down the sidewalk with my good eye. Impressive. The kid knows about denial too.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Legend of Tsar Bomba

Once upon a time there was a volcano.
There are many legends surrounding volcanoes and they are all very sad. This elevated valley is lined by fourteen volcanoes, each of which comes with a pre-Columbian legend, fanciful stories about forlorn lovers, lonely hearts, unrequited love, lost children, the agony of being deeply in love and forever apart, separated by earth-shaking tragedy. These are not Harlequin Romances; archaeologists confirm that the earliest romance-genre novel was excavated in a vacant lot in the Bronx and was carbon-dated to the late 20th century (I saw some myself in quaternary deposits behind a beauty salon in Nebraska. Alleys and gutters are full of quaternary deposits.). In any event, the stories always end up with one or the other protagonist throwing a ton of rocks and dust then exploding in rage. Somebody always dies, usually by decapitation. The doom! This is very sad. One gets very sad looking at volcanoes. I do not want to be a volcano.
Then there is the volcano legend about the lonely, wandering seafloor that meets a dark, defiant, and stubborn continental plate and subducts it, yes, subducts it, plunging itself into the hot asthenosphere - suicide! - its hydrous materials releasing water which, in turn, lowers the melting point of the overlying asthenospheric mantle which, when melted, upwells, pushing its way toward the earth's surface. Ultimately, so much pressure builds that the jilted volcanic lover buys a high powered rifle and enters a brokerage firm and holds an officefull of commodities traders hostage for days until his demands are met. Bring in his girlfriend or everyone dies. But she, of course, is miles and miles away and as cold as ice. She won't budge. He might as well be asking to move a mountain. So, we know the rest of the story: he blows his top, tips over the office furniture, throws chairs and desks out the windows, sets fire to wastebaskets and file cabinets and fires his gun into the air. This goes on for days, maybe weeks.
Well, I will have you know that those chairs and desks fell on the quaint villages in the valley below the volcano, burying them beneath a pyroclastic cloud of fine Corinthian leather and walnut veneer. The villagers never saw it coming. They ran into the center of the village, shouting that the gods were angry. Too late to offer up maidens from the tribe next door. But the good news was that the debris did improve the soil for the next generation. Too bad they weren't around to see it. Never did live happily ever after.
Another legend is that there is a bathtub on the side of one of those volcanoes to the southeast of where I sit. It's about 25 miles away, named Cayambe. Actually, the story is that there are are two bathtubs, one on either side of the equator and they have water swirling down the drain in opposite directions. That's what they say. I suppose that those tiny schoolchildren running down the streets in their green, parochial, catechismic uniforms know this one by heart as well. What are they running from?
Another legend is that the only place on earth that you can balance a chicken egg is on the equator. I suppose it's like walking east or west from the North Pole. Do not try it. Attempting that first step to the east, or be it west, has paralyzed many a polar expedition, as they spiraled into bitter disputes. How many of the explorers returned to tell the story? Can you name one? This too, is sad. What should have been a North Pole celebration descended into self-loathing. Hey, there go more schoolchildren.
The problem is this: If these legends were true, the nature of matter would not be as it is thought to be. For example, it would be possible that the distinctly North American phenomenon where a man standing a hundred yards away is so tiny that he can fit in your hand - this has been photographed thousands of times - is real, he is actually that small in comparison to the outstretched hand. This suggests that objects inflate in size as they approach the observer. I need to research this, perhaps get a badly needed doctorate in the process.
Objects Increase in Mass as They Approach Observer - Observer Loses Point of Reference.
Now all bets are off. Another commonly held belief exposed as a myth, a ruse, an ecclesiastical cudgel used to subjugate indigenous populations. Foreshortening is a lie! Millions held in bondage to fables are now free. You can be bigger than your neighbor, just drive him away. Objects do cease to exist when they disappear from sight.
Man, those kids are noisy.
Another one: Where I sit at this exact moment, sometime in March, at approximately 0.031415926535 degrees north, is the purported result of the exercise of free will that deflects random events, controlling destiny. But I am sitting on top of a thousand feet of volcanic ash and a thousand graves of people who were willing to travel to where it was I came from. Trading one set of random numbers for another. Like winning at cards. Eventually, everyone will have won 50% of the games they play. There is no advantage under the sun or beneath the shadow of this volcano, for that matter. There, that's another PhD dissertation:
Man That Abdicates Free Will is Subject to Absolutely Random Events and Dies Just the Same as Man That Exercises Free Will at All Times.
By the way, they sell these doctorates at the Pirated Music Store in this little village for a few dollars. I might pick up a couple. I want one in Shortsightedness. I think could get some credits for life experience. I think someone prints them in a boat offshore, in international waters, and sells them everywhere. Maybe that's why the call them Universities. Anyway, I think this dissertation will find that abdicants experience the illusion of immortality as the result. Something like: I wish to live, therefore I will live. In which case all those romance novels are objective reality; the power of free will is as powerful as the power of love to change another person's free will. I don't have the heart to break the bad news.
Now I see rain and hear thunder.
But it's only the Legend of the Doctoral Thesis. That's the Nobel Prize ceremony playing in my head; thunderous roar of the crowd and sustained applause, thousands on their feet, and one fat, solid gold medal hanging around my neck - for my visionary doctoral work in Unintended and Unanticipated Consequences. The following is a summary of the accomplishments:

"It was assumed that only the lithium-6 isotope would be reactive, absorbing a neutron from fissioning plutonium, emitting an alpha particle and tritium. Deuterium would fuse with tritium. It was assumed that The lithium-7 isotope would be inert. The lithium-6 performed as expected. The lithium-7 did not perform as expected. Unexpectedly, it captured a neutron, then released tritium and the neutron. Hence more tritium and neutrons were released than expected. The resulting atomic blast was 15 megatons, two-and-one-half-times greater than anticipated or intended."

And not only that, I can only assume what I know. I don't know what it is that I don't know but I assume I know all that I need to know. That's should be on the label. That should be on the medal. That's not such a big deal if you are just baking a loaf of bread. But 15 megatons?
I look down at the medal. It's gold. Maybe it was silver before it was bombarded by all this unanticipated yet refreshing radiation that is helping me to develop so many advantageous genetic traits - one of which had better be foresight. Look, I am developing gills! The medal has Mr. Nobel's relief on the front. I recall that Mr. Nobel once did some research and development of his own. He said regarding his dynamite factories:

“Perhaps my factories will put an end to war even sooner than your congresses. On the day when two army camps may mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilized nations will probably recoil with horror and disband their troops.”

Wait a minute. That's not thunder. That's not rain. This is really sad. I guess none of us saw it coming.