Tuesday, March 22, 2011

No Nukes! Growing Up With WIPP

I find myself writing this blog at 3 a.m., because lately this is around the hour I wake up thinking about Japan and can't get back to sleep. Here's where my middle of the night mind has taken me tonight...

So, the last semester of my high school was spent at Los Alamos High in New Mexico, the town where the atom bomb was created by Robert Oppenheimer and his Manhattan Project. I grew up in Santa Fe, and for that first semester of my Junior year I commuted every day around the beautiful sharp bends of the carved canyons to Los Alamos with my mom, who worked for their school system. In Santa Fe it seemed that everyone around me had No Nukes! bumper stickers on their cars; in Los Alamos, my friends' fathers worked for the labs that built the bombs.

Growing up in New Mexico, the awareness of nuclear energy was huge. When I was there in the 80s, it was a very active time for something called WIPP (known colloquially as "whip"), the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, located outside of Carlsbad, NM. The WIPP project defines itself on its website in this way: "The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, safely disposes of the nation's defense-related transuranic radioactive waste. Located in the Chihuahuan Desert, outside Carlsbad, N.M., WIPP began disposal operations in March 1999." When I do the math, I can see that it took well over a decade for the government run program to begin their dirty business, which involved nuclear waste being driven in unmarked vans down New Mexico highways to their ultimate place of toxic rest. Let it be said now that New Mexico had at the time (does it still?) one of the highest drunk driving rates per capita, so driving nuclear waste down highways in unmarked vans wasn't the wisest choice, us hippie children in Santa Fe were taught to believe.

I'll never forget this short and pimpled nerdy kid arguing with me in my science class over how stupid he thought I was because I was vocally against nuclear energy; everyone in Los Alamos seemed to support the effort because for many, it cut their family's fat paychecks. Pimply Kid so vehemently wanted to make me feel ignorant that the next day he brought in a brochure from Pop's office about the difference between fossil fuel environmental depletion and nuclear energy. As an aside, I imagined his father's office as a heavily guarded maximum security shelter carved into a mountainside, a la Batman. I came to find out one late night, while driving around near the labs with friends, that I wasn't too far off the mark. The brochure he brought in to show me had a visual aid that was set up to look something like this: a chart which scaled of millions of trees next against a tiny pebble. Why wouldn't I want to be on the side of the tiny nuclear pebble? Well, I just didn't. It felt dangerous and reckless, even if I didn't have hard facts like he did to solidly prop up my fears. Even if this kid's IQ was 179 and he was the reigning Chess Champion or some crap like that. And even if the "Narple Heads" (which in Santa Fean translated to "hippie people with bumper sticker covered cars") who I stood in solidarity with at the age of 16 looked like throwback burnouts who drove beat up cars with No Nukes! bumper stickers all over them. In reality, underneath their long hair and their mandatory Birkenstocks they were citizen activists who would protest WIPP by laying down in the highways holding hands so vans couldn't pass through their human barricade.

Looking back on that discussion I wish I could recreate that visual aid today so that the image becomes thousands of beautiful windmills shown opposing the image of the tiny nuclear pebble. So here we are now tumbling down the rabbit hole of this modern technology, and I'm afraid we'll be in Alice's new nuclear WasteLand for aeons to come. I wonder if my high school antagonist finds himself waking up at 3 a.m worrying for his children's world the way I worry for mine... it's the same world, after all.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


This past Friday night I attended a party for the book Girlbomb, written by Janice Erlbaum, to celebrate it's fifth anniversary in print. I blogged about the event for Publishing Perspectives, and you can read my full account over there. Let me say first here, though, that it was a lovely crowd of Girls and Boys alike, in a beloved haunt, the Bowery Poetry Club. Going with my dear old friend Silvia, who traipsed down from Albany in that way that she does, just added to the whole bliss of the thing. I'm so lucky to live around the corner from this lovebomb of a place. It's kind of like having my own personal Fountain of Youth three blocks away. Walk in, and I'm 16 again. Only it feels better this time around... here 'tis: http://bit.ly/gGkcqt.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Grammy Turns 85

Today is my grandmother's 85th birthday, an occasion that makes me feel more grateful than I can ever convey in words. I'm so lucky that I still have her in my life; she's a touchstone for me daily despite the fact that we live so many states apart.

Last week I got to take Jamie to visit her in Arlington, Texas, and sleeping in the back bedroom of her house with him brought me full circle; I'd slept in that bed when I was even younger than him, and in fact was brought home to that bedroom after I was born because my father was in Vietnam. I moved around so much growing up, and my Grammy's home has been one of the few constants in my life, year in and year out. When I go there, it's a physical comfort, and when I don't, it's there in my deep consciousness offering me safety and emotional security when I need it. There were so many Christmases that I fell to sleep in that back bedroom in the four poster Civil War-era cannonball bed, so excited that Santa was somehow going to squeeze down her Chimney and leave us something. Waking up on Christmas morning and walking down the hallway to the early morning sounds of my grandparents in their antique playroom is a lucid memory that I can draw on and picture vividly: the hallway is dark and lined with family portraits, and there is soft carpet beneath my feet. At the end of the hallway there's light coming through from the living room, but the sounds are coming from even further, from the antique playroom where the player piano plays and the coffee mill stands and the old fashioned grain stand and cash register and doll house that lights up that was built by my granddad all sit waiting, aligned in some kind of Semper Fi fashion, because for me the Marines have landed, and sitting at the round "coffee table" is my own Marine, wrapping last minute gifts with a precision that must have been born from his service years.

I close my eyes and experience that short walk again and again. There's the smell of coffee and I love it, even though I don't drink coffee yet. Waiting for me and my little brother on the mantel are oranges stuffed in stockings and peppermint sticks that you dig into their peel to suck out the juice, very messily. One of the best gifts I've ever received in my life came from my grandparents; a little white Beatrix Potter bookshelf that holds the complete set of her books. I have been able to pass this down to my son with stories: My favorite game when I was little was to play Librarian, which meant dumping the poor books out onto the floor to see how quickly I could put them back in order. In the 4th grade, I stuffed a note I got from Zack Shandler in the back of the bookshelf because he told me I would be a writer someday and drew a picture of me holding a book. Nevermind that it one of the 22 birthday letters I received, one from each classmate, and he was obligated by Mrs. Garcia to give it me.

Going back to Arlington this year to see my extended family sprouted a dormant seed of comfort that I didn't realize I needed so badly. There are no words to express how much these relationships mean to me. That I can pour myself a cup of coffee (coffee holds a big presence in my Texas memories; Putting on a Fresh Pot was just the thing to do) and pick up the phone in the afternoon in New York and get my Grandmother on the other line, to chat or spill my guts, depending on the day, has felt like a having a life saver thrown into a turbulent ocean whenever I've needed it. Watching Jamie run around in her huge backyard; watching her birds come to the feeders as if on a timer; visiting with her and her little Yorkie Teddy until I can barely keep my eyes open... all I can say is Happy Birthday, Grammy, I love and adore and treasure you. xoxo