What Can and Can’t Be Fixed

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.

23 comments to What Can and Can’t Be Fixed

  • Manifest and Testify. I live in the beautiful Appalachians of Western North Carolina, and I get to see my friends dealing with radioactivity in the Nolichuck river, poisoned wells on the French Broad River, sick children and yards that won’t grow beautiful native plants…

    There’s only so much we can fix as the BIG baddabooms happen. I want to help stop the chances for those disasters from occurring!

  • Rahula

    nice post, good connections, and congratulations on finishing your book, I can’t wait to see it.

    Can you perhaps provide a link to organizing efforts against relisencing Mt. Diablo?

  • tina freimuth

    i am deeply moved by your genius of co-mingling the mundane and the catastrophic, starhawk. you are so brilliant!!!
    a nuclear meltdown has no nationality nor borders. i wonder if applying this to the mundane of daily life that we could experience the inter-connectedness of our lives on this one planet and be “collective” global citizens. i think all these global uprisings are the beginning of an entirely new consciousness stemming from our relationship to Earth and her resources. since the air i breath, the ocean i touch and the rain watering my gardens here in these coastal hills of northern california, have always flowed through japan first, my awareness has been heightened this month by humanities misuse of earth’s resources and the effects on ALL living things. the catastrophic has changed my mundane, daily existence. i am you and you are me, and we are earth.

  • I was pleased to see a post from Dirt Worship in my feed reader and was even more pleased after reading it. Thanks for writing and sharing.

  • Well said! While readers are freshly inspired, some may want to calendar WMD protest @ Livermore Nuke Lab on Earth Day 4/22, 7 AM:
    http://www.epicalc.org (optional nvcd) Blockades may be more effective than petitions, and I’m ready, but petitions can’t hurt, so here are 3:
    Joanna Macy w/ 3 brave Russian activists speak out in Berkeley:

  • Thanks for your truly empowering take on the situation. Perhaps this disaster is what we need to wake us all up to what we are really doing and even what sort of people we are becoming as well. Thanks for telling it like it is. Warm Regards, Tasha

  • Congrats for finishing your new book. And nice to read you again. Is there any hope that the new book would be translated in german?

    • I”m done with writing the new book, and turned in the manuscript, but it won’t be out until fall. Yes, I suppose there is a chance that it will be translated, although New Society is a small publisher and probably don’t have the foreign sales staff of the big ones. But if you know a publisher who is interested in a book on group process, dynamics and decision making for collaborative, nonhierarchical groups, let me know and we can send them the manuscript.

      • Maybe the Edition Frauenoffensive Postfach 80 06 07
        81606 München

        E-Mail: info@Verlag-
        Tel. 089-48 95 00 48
        Fax 089-48 95 00 49

        is a choice.

  • I’ve been thinking and blogging about those same issues of control, the illusion of control, and the forces of nature that will never be controlled by science or logic or human ingenuity. Thank goodness for those wild forces, and for those who recognize and respect their power. You’ve taught us so much about recognizing and respecting that power, Starhawk – thank you!

  • Hi Starhawk,
    Thanks for your observations. I couldn’t agree more. Down here in SLO, the Mothers for Peace are keeping on, and on the 16th of April, we’re having a rally and demonstration that will help direct some of our rage and fear over Diablo. I know you can’t be here, but that’s ok. The people who live here will come out in force, and we will see each other and know that we belong here.

    • Actually, I’m going to try and come down on the 14th! Sorry I can’t come on the 16th, but we have about 50 people coming to work in the gardens in the Bayview and I promised to help supervise the day–and there’s no one I can pass that off to. But I’m sure this won’t be the only chance! I just can’t believe we’re back to protesting Diablo again after 30 years!

  • Thank you for this post. And thank you for the links you and others shared.

    There is so much inherent suffering in the world (wonder and joy too) – why oh why do “we” insist on making it worse by inventing horrors?

  • Sarah

    Three Mile Island survivor here. I’ve lived through 2 floods & an earthquake and I’ll take them over a nuclear melt-down any day. You spoke well, Starhawk.

  • Jeanette Lopera

    Dear Starhawk,
    We have had the Industrial Revolution–life became automated and we began to pollute the air, water and soil; then the Space Age–more pollution, and radioactive dangers; then the Age of Technology–E-waste out of control…If scientists can create all of these marvels, then they can get together and devise ways to break down radioactivity and other harmful substances into harmless (or benificent!) substances;and to find safe ways to live. It is time for the Age of Undo the Damage–when? I fear it is too late. We both know “why”, dear Starhawk…money is the deciding factor in our decisions. Now the radioactivity is found at least in the cow’s milk in California. If it is there, then it is in the food chain. Now it is found in the rainwater in my own state of New Jersey. It is hard to have hope when ignorance and greed have now inflicted cancer on our Goddess.

    • Let’s think Age of Regeneration–and let’s make it happen! If we succumb to despair, it will be too late. But I deeply believe that when we commit ourselves to regeration and renewal, we find great allies in nature that can help us overcome these crises.

      • Jeanette Lopera

        Thank you, Starhawk! I admire you, your writing and your work to no end! Your reply means more to me than you can imagine. Not only is it momentous in my life, but your mature trust in Nature is an example for me. The Goddess called me only 9 years ago. I am still learning; the present crisis is a real challenge. I will do what I can, and keep my eyes, ears, and heart open for opportunities. With your words in mind I will stand strong!

  • Albert Ellis

    What they teach in school is that History always repeats and Rome always falls…… why it don’t take no brain surgeon to figure out we should’nt be fooling around with nuclear energy……. I would tell all survivalist it is futile to be one unless they have a plan to maintain the 600 or so nuclear power plants in the world!

  • Raena Solaris

    Thank you

  • Loved the random reality of this post!

  • Thank you so much for all you do, Starhawk. I never noticed before now that you blog.
    I have everything you put on itunes on my ipod, and it has been wonderful for me. I have never been one to sit and read, but I love to go to the parks with my ipod. Your audios have been a godsend, and I wish you would put more of your stuff into audio. Much Love, Danielle

  • tina freimuth

    oh Starhawk, living on your land is wonderful, its nice to no longer have those men around, I’m glad you moved them on, as you mentioned above, oh we need to fix your deck, its falling down, you of course would have to give me money to fix it, well that may be awhile though

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