Twice in the last few days I’ve heard a thought-provoking and troubling piece on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” Terry and her interviewee discuss the idea that we’re on the verge of life as we know it being extinguished. More or less. This has transpired, in whole or in part, five times before this time. The time before this time, called the “Fifth Extinction,” covers the roasting or evaporating or disintegrating of the dinosaurs. The cause of said roasting/evaporating/disintegrating? An asteroid, scientists reckon. Not the 80s video game. The huge chunk of something traveling at the Earth at a bazillion miles an hour. Give or take. This time around? Scientists have looked around the room and, not finding a huge rock speeding towards our windshield in a tragic but unpredictable path, they’re making the two-thumbed “this guy” gesture. This time around, they think, the asteroid is us. We are the asteroid. Our own activity, that is.
What a powerful image. It’s one thing to assuage oneself with the comic book picture asteroid crashing into a lagoon a l-o-n-g time ago. An unsuspecting Brontosaurus or Apatosaurus or two dumbly chewing on prehistoric spinach, half in and half out of their turtle maws. About to be dust, or spray, or just nothing. Other than an occasional scare drummed up by an impossibly complicated mathematical computation from someone’s software somewhere in an attempt to secure tenure, a random asteroid crash of that magnitude just seems so…unlikely. Even it were proven likely, statistically, the utterly random and sudden aspects of such an event wouldn’t suffice to change anyone’s behavior in advance of impact or to avoid an impact. I just don’t think so.
Terry’s soothing voice and her somewhat bubbly-sounding guest’s, juxtaposed with the content of their discussion — that we are killing ourselves and everyone else’s selves — well that was pretty jarring. Perhaps so jarring as to be debilitating. What can we do?
Hell, I compost to the point of vigilantism and martyrdom. I have one compost bag explosion incident that will serve as a great blog post one day, as soon as I am able to revisit the memory without triggering PTSD. We swapped our gas-guzzling 130,000-mileage Jeep for a Prius. We are mellow with yellow. We have little canvas or polyester bags in which to stuff 40 pounds of groceries, canned beer sticking in my ribs on the walk home. (I grin and bear it, since the bruised ribs are a small price to pay for saving the planet). I don’t wash my jeans for weeks at a time. (I know, this one sounds a bit gross, but again, it’s for the Earth, for you people, see?) We have accumulated a collection of Nalgene bottles scattered throughout our lives, very likely incubating a strain or six of Legionnaire’s Disease.
My point? This stuff all feels good, feels right, seems right. Probably is right. But it also seems like a drop in the bucket. Or maybe rearranging those deck chairs on that listing ocean liner. Asteroids are pretty big, and there are an awful lot of people on the planet. Maybe they’re mellow with yellow, maybe they aren’t. But is it enough? Will it really be enough to move the needle in the grand scheme of things? Hmmm.
I’m going to continue swilling Legionnaire’s, don’t get me wrong. But I think there are other destructive asteroids that we can control. I might suggest that each of us is an asteroid in our own little lives, capable of suddenly veering menacingly towards important things in our lives, running the risk of ruining those things or at least altering those things’ trajectory, and not in a good way.
I am the asteroid.
A couple days ago, our 2nd grader Everett awoke with a swollen and stiff ankle. He’d rolled it on a hill at school the day before, limping around the house a bit. But his limping was overdone at times, nearly non-existent at others, and generally something I decided was not a big deal. So I hadn’t factored it into my plan for getting done what I planned to get done the next day. I had calendared on an hour-by-hour basis the entire next day, dicing it all up in little half-inch blue rectangles on my iPhone’s screen. Neatly. Orderly. One little blue brick stacked on top of another little blue brick, and so on. (Sounds like I’m wound pretty tight, I know, but turns out that people with brains like mine need to do this. Probably not far from “hot water burns baby.” Story for a later day.) I hadn’t left any space between my little blue bricks for the prospect of staying home with Everett that day. And in the middle of the “get the kids up and out” little blue brick, it began to appear that one far larger blue brick might have to be slapped over on top of all the others. With long meetings in sort of far off locales already scheduled, Wailea’s dog-walker already set for the day, I pushed up against the big blue brick as hard as I could. Atlas gritting his teeth under the globe, thighs shaking.
Triage mode. I Googled “wrapping an ace bandage around a sprained ankle,” located a second layer, neoprene, to increase stability, helped find a pair of too-big sneakers to accommodate a swollen foot, and we were able to get Everett out the door and off to the bus stop. I wrote a vaguely apologetic email to school, asking them to keep an eye on Everett’s ankle, hoping I would not get a call from the main office.
I had salvaged my best-laid bricks! And had a pretty productive day, as it turns out.
But the image of Everett gamely limping down the sidewalk that morning? The reverberating sounds of my gruff and stressed barks from the kitchen, commanding everyone to snap to attention so as to get Everett bandaged and propped up (to save my own bricks)? Total crap. The opposite of what I write about and aspire to in this blog.
Thankfully, Terry and guest gave me a name for this. I was the asteroid.
At least that morning, I had let my inner asteroid rip around our house, burning hot. A molten wrecking ball, rolling over and igniting everything in its path. Misguided. And totally controllable. By me. This particular asteroid wasn’t random, ginned up by a science fiction buff, something you shrug your shoulders at. “Oh well,” or “What are you gonna do?” Nope. Sure I saved my precious little schedule for the day, carefully constructed to preserve some sense of order where there otherwise wouldn’t be much order. And that schedule advanced the ball for me on a couple key fronts.
But at what price?
I guess my point here is this: I’m going to keep up the composting and not flushing stuff. I think that matters, for sure. But I am also going to try to be more aware of my own asteroid. That one that I can control. Even if it’s not what Terry and her author friend had in mind.
Thanks for reading.