I swore off blogging until my book was done. Which was kind of a shame, because so much has happened in the last two months—social and geological earthquakes, political and real tsunamis, nuclear meltdowns—things about which I have much to say. But I exerted discipline. Dial 1-800-blognomore and hear a cheery recording reminding you of why you should pay some attention to your family and your day job.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t swear off vehicular breakdown. So, yesterday, as I took a little break from the fussy work of trying to make sure all the footnotes were correctly numbered (so challenging when you keep moving sections around) my neighbor Jim came over to help me move a big trailer out of its resting place, so that the guys who are moving on could move out their dead truck. Or rather, before Jim came over he called me to say his battery was dead, so I hopped into the truck and went over to give him a jumpstart. Then we headed up to the old cabin on the ridge on my land, so we could dig out the fifth wheel hitch. This is a big double A-frame of metal that fits on rails on the truck-bed and in held by big slide-in bolts with pins in the end. After moving about ten big hog panels we dug out the hitch and successfully attached it. Then Jim noticed a belt was hanging down from the front of my truck.
I had actually noticed that belt the night before, and then forgotten about it when I rushed off to give him a jumpstart.
Now, my inclination was, let’s tuck it out of the way, move the trailer and then worry about it. After all, the truck was running.
But Jim, though he has dreadlocks and worries about global conspiracies, along with being one of the sweetest guys in the known universe has a more orderly mind. He wanted to look under the hood. Me, I try at all costs to avoid looking under the hood. I once got my finger caught in the hood of my Toyota, back in about 1971 when I was trying to be a good feminist and learn all the guy things even though they make your hands greasy, and the car had stalled on the freeway out in Pasadena and I was stuck there by the side of the road for over an hour trying to attract someone’s attention one-handed while tethered to the front of the car, and trying not to think about how my mother always told me never to get out of the car in the first place because predatory rapists prowl the freeway looking for hapless women victims with car troubles.
Jim ascertained that the belt was the fan belt. He thought pinning it up and ignoring the problem—my proposed solution—was probably a Bad Idea. I was willing to give up using the fan—but he said it ran a couple of other vital things, like the generator and the water pump. But mostly, in spite of the fact that we were on top of a bare hill in the pouring, freezing rain, he was engrossed in the puzzle of how to put the belt back on. We spent a happy quarter of an hour—more happy for him because he had rain pants on while I was getting soaking wet—trying to loop it this way and loop it that way until finally Jim admitted that the problem was beyond him.
So we went and got Jay. Jay lives in the little A-frame house further down the ridge and is known in these parts for his consummate skill with engines. Jay and his partner Judy were cozy by the fire when we came in, dripping, and Jim opened the conversation by merely asking for advice. But after a moment Jay, the Mother Teresa of auto repair, said, “I’ll get my jacket and follow you up.”
Here’s where I made one of my two Helpful Contributions. When Jay asked if we needed a light for the engine, I said, “I don’t have much in the way of tools.” “I’ll get my trouble kit,” he said.
We drove back up the hill, and he and Jim opened the hood again, and peered happily in. The gusts of cold rain had turned to a steady, driving sleet and my jeans were soaked through, but if the Selfless Saints of truck repair are staring at your engine, you kind of feel like you should stay with them for moral support, even though you know absolutely nothing about what they’re doing.
But here’s where I made my second vital contribution—I noticed a sticker on the bar of the hood thingy that had a diagram on it of how the belt was supposed to go. Oh blessed people in the Dodge factory! Some brilliant person, a veteran, perhaps, of his or her own truck breakdowns, had realized that someday, someone might be stuck on a freezing hillside in the rain with a fan belt that had popped off, looking for guidance, and here it was, just where it was needed!
Then I stood, for nearly an hour, getting colder and colder, watching Guys being Guys, oblivious to cold and rain, happily engrossed in the puzzle, saying things like, “The stop on the automatic adjuster appears to be extended to the maximum” and “That pin needs to slot into that hole there,” and “The rotor appears to be too high in relation to the pendulum”. Jim lay under the truck on the cold ground, Jay pulled out wrenches and unbolted vital parts of the engine and I smiled and nodded and murmured encouraging things while thinking about hypothermia.
Did I mention that I have The Cold—you know, the one that everyone has that goes on for weeks? It’s an admirable cold in many ways, one that should be an inspiration to us all, a sort of Republican cold for even when it’s defeated and discredited it doesn’t quit, but soldiers on, creating low-level misery and scheming for a comeback.
Cold, wind, and sleet did not daunt Jim and Jay, but finally I gave up, begged off and went down to Luan’s yurt below the cabin to stand shivering by the woodstove and drink hot tea. I was feeling rather dismal, because it seemed that at best, I’d be spending the next day, after finishing my book, hopefully—driving around the county trying to get truck parts, instead of having a well-deserved day off.
But finally I had thawed enough to trudge back up the hill. Much to my surprise, I was greeted by happy smiles from Jay and Jim. They had discovered the underlying cause of the belt problem—and it wasn’t, after all, a stretched-out belt or a shot tensioner, but apparently the whole thing had been installed wrong to begin with. It was like CSI—Truck Repair. Now we could go after the criminal who had caused the problem, maybe years before. Meanwhile, they’d reinstalled it and the truck was running fine. Jay even took the time to show me what to look for when I open the hood to check the oil—which I do force myself to do periodically—so I could tell if the fan belt was at the right tension and if it had stretched enough to need replacing. I’ve noticed this before—that guys who are good with engines like to explain things to you, and although, as I’ve noted, I know next to nothing about auto repair the one or two things I do know have all been shown to me by helpful guys in the pouring rain. Given enough time, and the increase in precipitation predicted to follow global warming, probably even I could learn to do a tune-up.
The sun came out, as if to celebrate our victory, and pledging my undying devotion to Jay, Jim and I went on to move the trailer.
But reflecting on these events, it occurred to me that the guys and I live in different realities. Jim and Jay, attuned to machines, believe that there are logical causes for things and that they can find those causes and fix things.
I, on the other hand, believe that there are mysterious forces at work beyond my comprehension, that machines are inhabited by evil or beneficent spirits that need to be placated, and that no matter how well you build something, it will inevitably break down.
I’m thinking about that as I read posts about the ongoing melt-downs at Fukushima in Japan and as my friends organize to protest the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant’s application for relicensing. Thirty years ago, we did our best to prevent Diablo from going online. We blockaded the plant for nearly a month, and there were five thousand arrests, one of the largest nonviolent direct actions of its kind. I got arrested twice—and formed some life-long friendships, learned a whole new style of directly democratic organizing, and became a dedicated anti-nuclear activist. Many of the people up here in these hills took part in that blockade, or the ones that followed against nuclear weapons at the Livermore Weapons Lab or Vandenberg Airforce Base.
At the end of the blockade, an engineer who had worked on the twin plants came out with a revelation—the two plants were mirror images of one another, and at some point, blueprints had gotten mixed up and parts of each had been built backwards.
That is just the sort of thing I would do if I were building nuclear power plants, which thank the Goddess I am not! It took them another four years to straighten the mess out. But the plant did finally go online, although our sustained opposition to nuclear power prevented another fifty plants from being built in California.
The authorities assure us that Diablo is safe, although it is built on an earthquake fault, on the ocean like Fukushima. PG & E, our utility company—the ones with the exploding gas pipes in San Bruno—swears it is safe. Of course, it turns out that some key safety systems have not actually been working for about a year and half, but no one noticed. It seems that they, like me, avoid looking under the hood.
Plants are built by guys—and probably now some gals—who are good with machines. They believe the world is logical, orderly and they have a handle on it. They believe that they are in control.
And no one can deny that their picture of reality is correct. It works. It gets the truck fixed.
And yet, my view of reality is real, too. There are forces out there beyond our control. Earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, disasters—mysterious intersections of causality and sheer dumb luck, or lack of it. I may now know how to check the tension on my fan belt, but that doesn’t mean I’ll remember to do it. We may have every backup system in the world in place, but that doesn’t mean that technicians will maintain them or that they won’t all fail, one after another, when Mother Nature unleashes the Big One, as surely in time she will.
Without the water pump, my truck’s engine could seize, and that would be a disaster, for the vehicle, potentially for me or a few others. But a nuclear power plant, without its pump—we’re talking about hundreds of millions of people affected, land made uninhabitable, a disaster that goes on for ten thousand years.
No one, no technician with an orderly mind, is ever going to convince me that’s safe. It’s not safe. By its inherent nature and the way the universe works, it cannot be made safe. To think it can is the ultimate hubris. Even now, there may be particles of poison from Japan in that driving rain.
Stop building them. Shut them down. Do not, under any circumstances, extend the licensing of ‘diablo Canyon: an aging plant on an earthquake fault run by a company with a horrific safety record. Nuclear power is not the answer to global warming—its a new level of disaster waiting to happen.
Take the billions Obama wants to put into nukes and build new wind generators and solar panels and hire kids from the inner city to install them. Use that research money to solve any problems with renewables—and I guarantee we’ll have a renaissance of clean, abundant energy that can bring us all healthful and fulfilled lives without burning coal, fossil fuels, or living with the shadow of nuclear wasteland hovering.
I am so grateful to Jim and Jay, and all the guys and gals who come out in the freezing rain to fix things. To those brave technicians risking cancer and horrific deaths to cool the nuclear monster. To all who labor to repair the world’s ills.
But some things can’t be fixed.