Plastics Are Forever

One word: plastic.

Benjamin Braddock as The Graduate in the 1967 film may not have been at all interested in it.

Meanwhile, America has swooned to the seduction of plastic after finding a generation ago that “cheap oil” could be made into so many versatile, colorful and inexpensive tools, toys and trinkets.

Every year, about 300 billion pounds of plastic are produced around the world. And the best thing about plastic we discovered since the sixties is that it is practically indestructible.

And maybe the worst thing about plastic, Benjamin: it is practically indestructible.

Take plastic shopping bags, for instance. They are so prevalent across the landscape that I propose that they be named the new national flower. Lifted to bloom on tree limbs by the prevailing traffic-winds of speeding eighteen-wheelers, they are the most lofty blossom of humanity’s love affair with plastic.

It’s hard to believe it has only been some 25 years since we were first faced with that awful but lightly dismissed environmental conundrum: paper or plastic? And overwhelmingly in recent years, the answer has been-you guessed it-plastic. Fully 80 percent of shoppers choose it. I read recently that “somewhere between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year”.

But wait. Let me set the record straight: that many bags are made and are utilized. But dear hearts, they are NOT consumed. They are NEVER really consumed. They are however, unfortunately, sometimes eaten-but more about that distinction in a minute.

So. Where do all those trillion plastic bags go when they disappear from our lives-the ones that don’t end up in the high branches of roadside trees? First, we’ll watch a bag settle into Goose Creek right out my window here, blown from the back of someone’s passing truck.

From there, it will wash into the South Fork and on downstream, into the main flow of the Roanoke River. It may perhaps in high water become temporarily hung up in the branches of a piedmont streamside alder. But eventually, it will find its way to the ocean. And there it will not be alone.

Let’s follow our wayward bag to its not-quite-final end (a Styrofoam coffee cup would follow the same route) all the way into one of six ocean “gyres”-great swirls of listless ocean sometimes called the “horse latitudes” where much of the world’s floatable trash ends up in unimaginable abundance. The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre between Hawaii and California can swell at times to twice the size of Texas and has come, just within our lifetimes, to contain many times more plastic than that area of ocean contains in living matter (biomass.)

Bad enough that our trash plastic unaltered and whole can strangle an albatross or seal (six-pack holders are notorious for this kind of death) or choke a green sea turtle that fatally mistakes our ocean-drifting plastic bag for a tasty jelly fish.

But perhaps the most ominous thing about the durability of plastic is that it can, over long stretches of time, wear down by sheer mechanical action into smaller and smaller particles without reverting back to its constituent carbons and hydrogens.

Many millions of pounds of these tiny non-digestible particles are destined over decades, centuries perhaps, to float in the ocean currents. In time, tiny bite-sized bits of plastic will be munched but not digested by zooplankton, the bottom tier of the marine food chain. These tiny animals by countless metric tons will be eaten by bigger and bigger fish, on up the food chain and into the grocery stores. And the plastic-and its constituents (a rogue’s gallery of dangerous additives) lives on, and on, and on.

Consider this: “Except for the small amount that’s been incinerated-and it’s a very small amount-every bit of plastic ever made still exists.” Each of us tosses about 185 pounds of plastic per year. And you have to wonder: do we need filtered-water bottles that will last for 500 years?

Where does this leave you and me? Perhaps we are on the verge of a slow substitution of non-degradable with break-downable “plastic-like” shopping bags and six-pack holders and drink containers and Barbies and Kens that don’t require fossil fuels. As nearby as Virginia Tech, new, less persistent polymers for this purpose are being created using chicken feathers!

So the next time the nice young man at Slaughters presents me with that impossible paper-or-plastic dilemma and I don’t know how to answer, I’ll be toting a canvas shopping bag (it’s a start, and something we can do in the near term) and I’ll smile as I imagine a green sea turtle off the coast of Myrtle Beach munching contentedly on a real, digestible, peanut-butter-and-jellyfish.

Polymers are Forever
Plastic Ocean
Plastic A’int my Bag

A Poem for Father’s Day

So here we are, the parental empty-nesters, sandwiched once more on the late spring calendar between Special Days for mothers and fathers. Our adult offspring (the term we substitute in recent years for the word “children” when describing our small but matured brood) live far away and it’s easy to misplace even the memory of the satisfaction and anguish of having actively, presently, physically been someone’s parent so long ago and far away.

Now I will readily confess that I have a curmudgeonly and cynical opinion of these parental “holidays” as being manufactured for the bottom line of the likes of Hallmark Cards and Russell Stover Candies.
But I will also admit that at times, to be remembered in the small way of a special phone call, a hand-written letter or a cross-country trip on these designated days of appreciation are, well, genuinely appreciated.

Saved, Remembered, Found: a father’s day poem-a toast (and cleverly veiled roast) for Father’s Day 2004, received from our son, Nathan, then a single scholar just moved to British Columbia, and today married and moving into their first owned home in Columbia, Missouri-still far too far away.

I thought I would share Nate’s poem with you this Father’s Day in the hopes that it might help you to recall: that seeming crisis in your relationship with your dad that looking back was so silly you can laugh about it now; the way you respected him but never got around to telling him because at the time, he rightfully thwarted your idiot dreams; the lessons he taught you by example, good and bad; and the pride you know he has when he hears from you, a grown or growing young man or woman who occasionally takes the time to say “thanks, dad.”

Do consider using the short phrases of this “poem” as a model, and give a single page a single hour of your time, a gift to give your dad this year, while there’s time. Chances are, he’ll never forget it.

A Father’s Day Poem For Dad, 2004

For all the times you made me hold that damned ladder;

For all the times you said, “if you throw that tennis racquet again, we’re going home,” and I threw the tennis racquet again, and we went home;

For that time you wanted to go hiking in the Smokies, and I wanted to go to Amy Harris’s pool party, and I pitched such a fit halfway to the Smokies that you turned the car around and drove us home at breakneck speeds, only to give in half an hour later after I pitched another fit, and we went to the Smokies, and had a nice time;

Father's day way backFor beating me every time at every sport and every game, many years after I was sure I was better than you;

For the thirty-seven times you told me the name of the same green-metallic beetle, while each time I was thinking about some girl or some song I’d like to write, or some song I’d like to write about some girl, only half an hour later to see a green metallic beetle, and wonder what kind it was;

For the times you crushed between your fingers something sweet-smelling, or sharp-smelling, or minty-smelling, or putrid, and shoved it toward my nose, saying, “Nature snort;”

For all the arguments we’ve had about religion, and all the agreements we’ve had about politics;

For all the times we’ve called each other “smart-ass,” audibly or otherwise;

For every time you should’ve made fun of me for the way I split wood, and the vast majority of times that you did;

For all those really stupid ideas I’ve had, which you vehemently opposed, until you knew I’d go through with them anyway, at which point you supported me;

For all those trips I’ve taken, and you’ve secretly worried about, even while you tried to project all your concerns for me onto “my mother;”

For teaching me to light the water heater-and to rake with full, efficient strokes, and curse at the weed-whacker, and spread the peanut-butter clean out to the crust;

For all the creative ways you punished me, with just enough consequence to sting, and just enough humor to tell stories about later;

For finding your craft, your voice, and a fulfilling sense of place–for living my aspiration and giving me a sense of belonging, even as odd as I feel to live vicariously through my father;

For all those times, all those lessons, all your friendship and love, this father’s day I bought you an ice-cold bottle of beer,

Which I’m drinking now as I write you this poem,

All the while thinking, man, he would’ve enjoyed this.

Thanks, Dad. Love you. I’ll spot you that beer sometime. — Nate

Of Remotely Possible Interest

For any of you thinking of getting a book published, or know someone who is, consider this: Success can be failure. Let me explain.

I sat in the audience of a panel discussion in Galax on Saturday. Editors from JF Blair, McFarland, and Norton and one highly-successful NYC agent (a Galax native!) discussed the world of publishing. I took the opportunity to ask a question, whose answer I anticipated would hold interest for other authors in the room.

“Given a self-published book that has met with modest success (1100 sold its first year) what would you recommend to move such a book up into wider distribution? Would it be thinkable that a publisher (like Blair) would accept submission of such a book, the self-published copy being the “manuscript”, and work to distribute it to a wider market?”

The answer: NO

They all said “be happy for your successes to date. If we’d picked it up, that’s about what we would have projected for sales.”

And of course, the publisher would have taken no small percentage of the costs over printing. Keeping full control has allowed me to keep more of the returns. And going with a “real publisher”, for all the angst and delay that would have required, might not have gained me that much after all.

So if you’re thinking of going the way of traditional publishing, shop your manuscript early, before it becomes a trial-balloon short run book. If it succeeds in this latter form, it may fail to get past the front desk with the editor. They want the same low-hanging fruit you want, and if you pick it first, they won’t give you a look. Now I know.

A Teachable Moment in a Climate of Fear

If I portray the days of my youth as somehow different and better, more free and more open than these, I suspect I’ll be blamed for both selective memory and maudlin sentimentalism.

But I have just returned from a visit to my boyhood home of Birmingham, Alabama, and can’t shake this sense of sadness and loss, convinced that city life where I grew up was, once upon a time, slower paced, friendlier, and far, far safer than today.

In conversation with a librarian near my mother’s home, I mentioned the Leave No Child Inside author and his book about which I’ve written here recently. From that, the talk moved to how much I used to enjoy the vacant lot in our neighborhood of Crestwood where my playmates and I made forts, became cowboys and Indians, and watched the stars come out as we gathered outdoors past dark on balmy Alabama summer nights.

The volunteer in the library told her own memories of dances in downtown, after which she’d walk home with her friends three miles to Ensley, west of town. Nobody in their right mind would think of taking such a risk these days, she said sadly. Risk? Just walking home? Why are we so often oppressed by the threat of imminent danger in places once so safe?

I tried to remember: what did our parents fear for their children in those days? What were we warned of?

To look both ways; to avoid petting dogs we didn’t know; and to not take candy from strangers. In all my childhood years I never knew of anyone from my schools that was abducted; or offered drugs; or killed by a drive-by shooter.

We live in a pervasive and escalating climate of fear. Global warming (a real enough threat, I’m convinced) has for the moment replaced the mushroom cloud looming overhead, while down on the ground, a terrorist lurks in every stranger to our shores and violence broods in our games, our music, and our streets. Colleges become killing fields.

And even though the waters here are murky with philosophical, psychosocial and moral-ethical complexity, we must ask: WHY? What lesser value have we come to place on the worth of human life; or what have we forgotten about the sanctity of the human soul once held almost universally true, so that today, death and violence of man against man is so horribly common in pop culture, entertainment and games, and the streets of home?

Finding the answers won’t be easy, but the questions about our fears are bubbling to the surface in our conversations since April 16. Perhaps this will be for us a teachable moment and from the very bad, some good might come.

In this time of immense sorrow and sadness, maybe we will question the role of parental permissiveness and presence in our homes for our children, and re-examine mothers’ and fathers’ examples in shaping their children’s play, their conversation, their judgment and respect for others. Play nice. Share. Don’t call names. Don’t hit back.

Perhaps this adversity will remind us how we were taught as children to take the measure of the stranger or the newcomer not by the sum of his material possessions or nationality but by the belief that he or she is endowed with inalienable rights and worthy by their very existence as human souls-bleeding, loving and hoping just like us. Trust so easily lost can be regained. It must.

Shakespeare referred to man as the “paragon of animals.” And yet, the story of our noble species even during my short part of the drama has slipped a step back towards Darwin’s brutish “nature red in tooth and claw”.

The goods of industry and commerce, with the dominant traits of competition, cold efficiency and survival of the fittest, overshadow the goods of cooperation, trust and unmerited favor. But we are not merely animals driven solely by fear or by our lesser instincts for self-preservation and pleasure and freedom from want at any cost.

If anything positive is to come from the terrible events of the past weeks, then it may be in the fact that we all come back to these difficult and complex questions about the roots of human dignity, destiny and purpose.

What is our story all about? What can we do in our communities and county to swim against the current of hatred, violence, greed and fear? How can we grow together for good and reclaim our hope for peace on Earth, good will toward men?

This essay published 3 May 2007 in Road Less Traveled in the Floyd Press.

Slow Road Home: A Year Old Today


April 26, 2006, and there they were at last.

Ann and I watched as the delivery truck lowered the burden at the back door, just as it began to rain. Then there it sat: a plastic-swaddled pallet of 28 cardboard boxes, 48 books per box: my books, finally born, real and shrink-wrapped in threes. Very quickly the first case was opened and a few books spread out on the table in front of me.

And in that first hour, I knew both the beaming joy of a new parent and the utter terror of someone who has just realized he may have bought the Brooklyn Bridge.

I do not exaggerate the ambivalence or the extent to which, on that first day, I was not quite sure what I had done. Or why. Or of what to do next. But mostly, that moment brought relief. I had never seen more than a half-dozen proof pages of the book before April 26. In this leap of faith, this was the very first time I held the completed cover-to-cover book in my hands, and I could almost weep I was so relieved. They didn’t look cheap, didn’t feel slick-quick or second-rate like some of the earlier “author subsidized” books you see around. But now what?

In that first hour on a rainy April afternoon, I began getting books ready to mail to those of you who had more confidence in me than I had in myself. Dozens had sent PalPal orders and checks even before the book reached final draft! On April 27, I carried three heaping boxes of books to the post office with satisfaction and a sense of completion, finally having accomplished a goal that for almost three years I suspected was nothing more than a fantasy, a self-deceit, a pipe dream.

But more than ever, I was naked before the world now, exposed and public. To have invested so much time and so many dollars in this project would let the world know that in my opinion, there was something here worth the effort. The book seemed a kind of boast and I was both embarrassed and proud.

Was this what they meant by “vanity press”? Was Slow Road Home the ugly baby only a father could love? I had bared my soul in some of the passages now between the covers of this book, made myself vulnerable in ways I had not felt with the free-and-easy weblog and its forgiving and tolerant audience of readers who just blew off the many times at bat I struck out as a new writer.

April 26, 2007, and that slow road still goes on.

Yesterday, I received word that Forever Resorts (in Arizona) is interested in the book for distribution at their facilities along the parkway. This includes the store at Crabtree Meadows, but most importantly, Mabry Mill here in Floyd County. The Park Service will carry it at other concessions like Peaks of Otter and Rocky Knob Visitors Center (also here in Floyd County.)

Some few of you will appreciate how formidable is the task of getting a self-published book “out there”. This is beginning to happen, and it has taken a full year.

Why does this matter to me? It certainly isn’t about the money. I could add one day a week in the clinic and double my year’s income from the book.

I think it’s the fact that, when the memoir does find resonance in a receptive and appreciative reader, there is the satisfaction that my message and story has been heard. Something at the gut level has been shared:

Slow down. Open your senses. Appreciate the ordinary. Suck the marrow out of life, as Mr. Thoreau encouraged us to do. Tell your story. Say YES To the beautiful parts of this world just outside your door. Care.

Thanks to all who have shared this journey with me, some few since the very beginning, and also at anniversary this week: Fragments from Floyd is five years old! And here we go!