A Philosophy in Three Acts  (h2so4 11)

"Possible Premature Baby, Born in the Pool and Now Stuck in the Pump"

(Heard this over the dispatch radio when I worked in the office of the Tucson Fire Department.)

What sources describe as a "plume of highly radioactive salts" has formed in groundwater under Lake Karachai—an artificial storage lake in the Chelyabinsk region in the southern Urals—where it is migrating at the rate of 80 meters per year towards three of Siberia's rivers, the Arctic Ocean, and the world.

In 1991, American experts observed a dose rate of 300 to 600 millirems per hour near the lake shore, which is three to six times the exposure permitted for a whole year under American regulations. Just one minute standing on the lake shore without full protection means certain death.

During the 1970s, radioactive contamination found at a children's camp was traced to bats that live and breed near the lake.

No technology is available at present to keep the plume in place.

My housemate sweetly bought me a package of sweatsocks which included as a "free gift" (in fact an extra knob of packaging, a little more plastic in the trash stream) one of those Chinese-made "sports watches" covered with graphics and buttons that have no function. A bit of quartz commanding a small bank of LCDs, housed in a useless sheath of plastic.

The watch on my wrist reads 10:15. My new sports watch, however, tells me it is "6:53"—;three numbers and a blinking colon. (I have not set it.)

Pinned here upside down on my wall, it chillingly reminds me of the reflection in Paul Auster's novella, Ghosts:

Something happens, Blue thinks, and then it goes on happening forever. It can never be changed, can never be otherwise. Blue begins to be haunted by this thought, for  he sees it as a kind of warning, a message delivered up from within himself, and try as he does to push it away, the darkness of this thought does not leave him.

I feel, in other words, a terrible affinity for this free gift blinking endlessly on my wall. I also, it seems, am an artifact of a world gone mad, a side-effect of packaging. I have been wired according to a simple template. I am a process that once set in motion knows nothing but my own continuance. I also hang, and count the minutes to my cease.

Recently I woke from a dream that was only one image long. The bent   shoulder and callused hands of a stooped Asian woman carrying one of those laminated plaid cloth bags you can buy for $1.50 in Chinatown. The handles are worn, frayed, tied, repaired with twine. The perspective is close up, looking over her shoulder. That is all.

The meaning this image had for me, as I rubbed my eyes and looked around my tiny room, was: Some lives are just sad. There is no justice. And further (to paraphrase Bogey): The problems of three little people don't amount  to a hill of beans in this world.

Later the image began to have another meaning for me as well. What do we need? What if the plastic bag you bring your brussels sprouts home in today was the only bag you ever got? What if you had to use it as purse, garbage bag, and hand puppet for the rest of your silly life? When it tears, you patch it with  duct tape. And when you die, they find it clutched in your arthritic, callused hand.

[©1999, Halliday Dresser]