Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Liquid State

From the Diary of Flapdoodle...

July of 2015 has been recorded as the hottest month ever for Planet Earth, since global temperatures began to be recorded, back in 1880. 

In Portland, Oregon, where dwells the eponymous Flapdoodle, Summer 2015 is now on record as the city's hottest summer ever. As the season winds down, I reflect upon hot summers, rivers, civilization, nature and some of the surreal aspects of life here in the futuristic 21st century.

This meditation begins along the banks of the Allegheny River, in Pennsylvania, where, in the 1960's and 1970's, my grandparents had a small cottage. Many happy summer days were spent swimming in that river with my family's Labrador Retriever, whilst unbeknownst to me, the current carried petroleum byproducts steadily downstream, to join with the Ohio River in Pittsburgh, then to mix with other pollutants and eventually flow into the Gulf of Mexico via New Orleans. 

The woods lining the river banks were filled with big glacial boulders, leftover when the last Ice Age melted, and tangles of wild grape vines, and there was one big very strong vine which we used for swinging. 

The vine carried you off one of the big boulders and over a small ravine before tracing its pendulum-arch back to your starting point, all of which felt extremely thrilling to a 6-year-old. We called it the Tarzan vine, after the hero we knew through old movies on TV, and wearing cutoff shorts and no shirt, one could indeed imagine himself a child of nature beneath the arboreal canopy. 

The genius of Tarzan is that besides being one of the seminal superheroes of the 20th century, he personifies humanity's contradictory, complicated and ambivalent relationship with nature.

Tarzan protects the jungle from greedy men who seek to exploit or despoil it, and yet he is also the Lord of the Jungle, embodying the mythology of Africa's white colonizers, a supposed force of fair and benevolent governance in a dangerous world. Despite our admiration for Tarzan, we know that in real life, Africa's white rulers are usually despots at best. 

Tarzan was created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who had the business sense to form Edgar Rice Burroughs Incorporated in 1923, which controlled most of the author's literary works and the licensing of his characters. This meant that even though the writer did not care for swimming champion Johnny Weismuller's portrayal of the Ape Man, Burroughs nonetheless made a handsome profit from the 12 films the Olympic medalist made, between 1932 and 1948. And long after age and unwise eating sidelined Weismuller from the franchise, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. continued to draw income from the films. 

In the late 1990's, many years after the days of the river and the Tarzan vine, I found myself living far away in Oregon, day-trading in the early morning hours before my regular job, watching Squawk Box on TV, fancying myself a capitalist. No longer immersed in a river, a relentless current of financial and business news flowing over me brought the eventual realization that the mighty USA, the biggest and baddest of Planet Earth's nation states, was now being steadily and relentlessly co-opted by the corporation.  

The US government, (along with all its counterparts across the globe) were increasingly subservient to corporate power, often to an obvious  extent. The edifices and offices of these governments would continue exist in the future, but only so much as they cooperated with and carried out the will of corporate power. In fact, that was the reason they would continue to exist: the persistence of the traditional trappings of governmental power would deflect scrutiny from the corporate powers, and confer legitimacy on the actions those government agencies took on behalf of their corporate masters. 

Paid lobbyists, for example, write virtually all the legislation in the US. Speaking of payment, since all US elected officials must obtain astronomical amounts of cash in order to run for and maintain their office, they are de-facto employees of the corporations which contribute. And since the 1990's, there has been a strong and pervasive trend to privatize government functions, including even war, as is the case with the notorious Blackwater Corporation, now known as Academi. And so on.


I would later learn, during events like the Occupy Movement of 2011, that Corporate Rule would use the police and military forces, and all their requisite armaments, with those respective forces operating in effect as corporate mercenaries.

But by the time I noticed, it was all in fact, old news.  

Rollerball (1975) and Robocop (1987) are famous scifi films relating to this theme.  

And the 1953 novel The Space Merchants, by Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth is one of the earliest and most incisive treatments of this subject. It tells the story of an advertising man, caught in a web of intrigue and counter-intrigue, in a future world where the official government of record is in fact merely a front for corporate rule, bestowing a veneer of legitimacy whilst capitalist oligarchs pull all the strings. When it was first published, it was considered satiric, but like so many other dystopian novels, it has turned out to be far truer than anyone would like to admit.  

In The Space Merchants, the only organized resistance to corporate rule comes from a group known as the 'consies.' Although the word sounds like 'commies,' a term in high usage during the cold war, it is in fact short for 'conservationists.' That's what environmentalists were called in the 1950's. 

Writing now from my vantage point in the 21st Century, I often meditate on the fact that our time period was once considered by my favorite writers to be a very futuristic year indeed. 

Prior to reading the novel, I watched the classic TV-movie, on PBS, in 1980.

Ursula LeGuinn's classic novel The Lathe of Heaven, written in 1971, is set in Portland of the year 2002. In the novel, the city experiences constant rain, as a result of the Greenhouse Effect. I have lived in Portland since 2000, and the overall trend is less rain, not more. Our last three years have been  outright droughts.

On the futuristic afternoon of July 29, 2015, I sat in my home watching a local TV special news bulletin. I had taken the day off work because my Labrador Retriever had just been released from surgery, with a long, freshly stapled incision on her abdomen, and I had been directed to closely monitor the dog for the first 48 hours post surgery.

The live news broadcast showed that environmentalists had rigged harnesses and climbing ropes from the St. Johns Bridge, rapelling themselves 100 feet down to dangle just about 100 feet above water level. This would put them in the path of the the icebreaker Fennica.  If the Fennica were to pass, it would be forced to collide with them. The rapellers were acting as human shields.

The deck of the St. Johns Bridge is 200 feet above the Willamette River. Coincidentally, that is the about height of the point on the Brooklyn Bridge from which Tarzan famously dived in the 1942 film Tarzan's New York Adventure:
Tarzan Dives from the Brooklyn Bridge

Fennica was part of an oil extraction fleet belonging to Shell Oil, and it had docked in Portland for repairs a week earlier. The ice breaker would need to pass under the St. Johns Bridge via the Willamette River Channel in order to rejoin Shell's arctic fleet. Shell's arctic drilling had already caused a disastrous oil spill in 2012. 

In one of the universe's trademark displays of irony, the area where Shell proposed to drill in 2015 was previously inaccessible due to the ice pack, but now the Greenhouse Effect, AKA Global Warming/Climate Change had cleared the path for Shell. The burning of carbon fuels, such as petroleum, is the primary cause of the Greenhouse Effect. 

Word of the Fennica's layover at the Portland dry-dock had gotten out earlier, and the environmentalist group Greenpeace had hastily organized the rope crew to obstruct the path.  

In addition a small flotilla of 'kayaktivists' (paddlers aboard kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards) had stationed themselves on the water beneath the bridge, also intending to obstruct the path of the icebreaker.

It worked for a little more than a day.  On the first day, a United States district court judge in Alaska ruled that Greenpeace would be fined $2,500 per hour for every hour that the ship was obstructed. This by itself was not sufficient to stop the protest.

Then on the afternoon of July 30, Portland City Police and the Oregon State Police began to direct traffic away from the Saint Johns Bridge, clearing it of cars, buses, trucks, motorcycles, bikes, and pedestrians. This was so that the police could, without unnecessary drama, forcibly lower the rapellers down to water so as to be picked up by patrol boats and taken out of the path of the ship. 

Extraction, it was called. This turns out to be the term that oil companies use as a euphemism for drilling. Small world. 

At the same time, an extraordinary action took place on the water. A combined fleet of boats, operated by the Multnomah County Sheriff's Dept.,  Clark County Sheriff's Dept., the Portland Fire Bureau, and the US Coast Guard, cleared the kayaks way from the path of the ship. Later I would read that the Coast Guard, whose duty it is keep the shipping channel clear, was officially in command. 

As some kayaks were pushed out of the shipping channel or pulled from the water, some of the paddlers plunged into the water, in hopes of their bodies being considered floating obstacles. These floating paddlers were eventually pulled out of the water with boat hooks.

Local Portland News Video of Fennica Protest

By about 6:30 PM, it was over...enough of the climbers on their ropes had been moved, enough kayaks and floaters had been moved, and the channel was clear. The Fennica moved forward toward the mighty Columbia River, and then into the Pacific, to rejoin the corporate fleet so as to continue the defilement of the Arctic on behalf of the great and powerful corporation, Shell, which is reported to have a market capitalization just shy of $200 billion.

The extraction of the rapellers and the clearing of the channel was a compelling spectacle for the TV news people, and their ambivalence bore a passing resemblance to objectivity. They could express a tacit sympathy with the Greenpeace cause in abstract, and simultaneously have deeper empathy for the thousands of motorists, stuck in traffic for many hours as a collateral effect of the crackdown.  

Even through my shame at missing the protest, it was still thrilling to see the bravery and determination of the protesters. I longed to on the water myself, shouting obscenities and shaking my fist at the Fennica and her escorts. Being Quixotic would be better than doing nothing.

Everyone knew the best that could be done was to slow the ship, but at least they had delayed it for a commendable 36 hours and the spectacle had been broadcast on national media. People had been made just a little uncomfortable, maybe uncomfortable enough to think. 

Besides the dramatic visual spectacle, there was the unavoidable realization that the federal courts, the military, the fire department, the state police, the city police, and two local sheriff's departments -seven tentacles of governmental authority- had simultaneously worked in concert to assure that a single corporation could resume its exploitation and despoiling of the Planet Earth. 

It was one of those moments when a pattern becomes visible with crystal clarity. 

Shell extracts and sells petroleum, currently one the most valuable liquids on the planet.  The value of petroleum appears to be sufficient to justify the ruin of vast tracts of ocean and wilderness, the poisoning of drinking water, and the gradual degradation of habitability for the planet.

Two days after the the Shell action, on August 1, the Willamette River would again be obstructed by a flotilla of small private craft, but in a rather different context. 

The Red Bull corporation, privately held since its inception in 1987, makes and sells another fluid...a so-called energy drink, selling over 5 billion cans of a year. 

To create a mental linkage between their frankly awful tasting potion and that most exalted of mental states, fun, Red Bull sponsors many public spectacles of physical skill and bravery. 

One of these events is the annual Flugtag (German for 'flying day'), wherein teams build eccentric or humorous-looking gliding devices which are propelled off a floating dock, the objective being to see how much horizontal flight can be achieved.  The current record for Flugtag is in excess of 200 feet.  

Red Bull obtained a permit from the City of Portland to utilize Tom McCall Waterfront Park, an open sloping area that serves as a natural amphitheater. They also obtained a permit from the US Coast Guard to operate on the river.  

My dog was now doing well and could be left alone for half a day, (provided she wore the Cone of Shame, so as to prevent her from chewing out her staples) so Mrs Flapdoodle and I determined to attend the event. 

Red Bull's website stated that the event was to start at 11 AM, so at 10:30 AM I unloaded our kayak at the eastside dock of the Willamette, and my wife and I paddled across the river to the yellow floating barrier which separated the Flugtag landing zone from the rest of the river. 

There were already a few other kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards at the barrier, and a small armada of private boats, of various sizes and types, had been accumulating in the surrounding area since the day before. (Later on, I would learn that the Coast Guard estimated the total eventual number at approximately 500.) 

Nearby, on the west side of the Willamette, Tom McCall Waterfront Park was packed, and the temperature was already in the mid-90's. (As of this writing, Portland has had 26 days above 90F, exceeding the record from the summer of 2009, when there also 24 such Oregon, Global Warming/Climate Change is not a hoax.) But we were floating on the cool river.  

Shortly before 11 AM, a powerful public address system began to fill the air with the inanity of contemporary pop music and the idle chatter of the Red Bull company's pet DJ's. Above the waterfront park, guests at the luxurious Marriott Hotel stepped out on their balconies to observe, perhaps a result of the rhythmic top 40 cacophony shattering their repose.

I took it all in stride until about 11:30 AM, when I began wondering aloud when the actual competition would begin. It was then that I learned that via 'social media' many people knew in advance that the main attraction would not begin until about 1PM. This realization immediately made me angry, first at Red Bull, but then at myself for being enough of chump to arrive 2 hours early.

Luckily, we had packed a small cooler with sandwiches and cold drinks, and, to give them due credit, Red Bull had arranged for some entertainment. 

Shortly after the strike of noon, we were treated to several performances by a couple of young aquatic acrobats flying hydro-jet powered 'aqua skates.' The aqua-skates were strapped to the feet of the acrobats, and attached to jet-skis via 30 ft. umbilicals. The jet thrust of the marine snowmobile was carried via the 30 ft tube to power the aqua-skates, giving the acrobats the ability to fly and do utterly fantastical stunts, literally like the kind of thing you see Iron Man doing via CGI at the cinema. Like Circe Du Soleil, you could see it, and yet not fully believe it.  

It was appropriate that the acrobats should remind me of Iron Man, for in the fictional worlds of his existence, Iron Man serves as the public face of Stark Industries, a giant weapons and technology business. Created in 1963, he was the first corporate superhero, and being encased in super-weaponized ultra-high-tech armor as opposed to a skimpy loincloth, he is in many ways the opposite of Tarzan.

The Jet Ski powered acrobats, amazing though they were, added to my feeling of dissonance. The idea of a 'sport' which requires a constantly running internal combustion engine is highly decadent in my view. Knowing that Shell Oil was now running wild in the Arctic so as to pump more oil, why in Heaven's Name had humanity invented a new sport that was 100% dependent on gas guzzling vehicles? 

A short while later, heads suddenly turned upward to see several parachutists, flying stunt para-foils, spiraling downward, making corkscrew turns, and finishing with a precise touchdown on the floating dock. One trailed an American flag, for which many in the audience applauded. The 'chutists were announced as 'the Red Bull Air Force.' This phrase caused something to click inside my head.

The public park, packed tight as a mini-Woodstock, the Red Bull logo everywhere, with the words in ten-foot-high letters emblazoned on the floating dock, the jibbering Red Bull announcers, Red Bull jet fliers and now a Red Bull Air Force.

Just as the old Roman Emperors had arranged public spectacles for the masses at the Colosseum, the modern corporation stages public spectacles on government property. It was a distinct moment, like so many others, when the reality of the corporate state was fully manifest.  

The Red Bull corporation, formed in 1987 and by now a megalith, owned this space, this day, this river. The entertainment had been bait, and now, with floating craft of almost every type literally filled in all around, we were seemingly locked in, with no alternative but to see this corporate pageant to the end, to ingest the entire smorgasbord of advertising. 

The actual Flugtag contest did eventually start, finally, about 1PM. The teams all strove for one or more of two objectives: gliding distance and/or creativity.  Each flying machine seemed to be a kind of hybrid between a parade float and a hang-glider, usually with the hang-glider portion detaching from the heavier, parade-float portion as the craft reached the end of the floating dock.  

One of the best-looking entries was a Lego craft. 

Another was The Flying Fish, from Bozeman Montana, painted with great care to resemble a giant, winged salmon, if such a thing existed. Coasting off the dock, it plunged downward in a slightly-arcing path, with the pilot immediately unseated and heading toward the water head-first. Thankfully, he popped up immediately, tapping his helmet, the per-arranged signal to the safety crew that he was OK.  The helmet, BTW, like all the helmets at the event, was blue and gold, bearing the Red Bull insignia.  

Many teams adopted images and nomenclature from movies and TV. There was a Star Wars team and a Big Labowski team. Each that we saw traced a similar, slightly-arced downward plunge.

We watched the first six teams, after which Mrs Flapdoodle said she'd seen enough, and we began the long awkward slog through all the small and large watercraft that had packed in around the landing zone. Every type of privately-owned watercraft was there, from inner-tubes on up to Bond-villian-type luxury yachts, but by polite persistence, we gradually squeezed out, moving by grabbing onto other other craft, since there was no room to put a paddle in. 

Finally the boats thinned out and we could paddle, but even then, even in 17 foot kayak, it was a matter of constantly dodging boats and other craft, till we beached on the other shore.

Later, as Mrs Flapdoodle and I watched the local TV news, we learned that the Red Bull Corporation had been forced to stop the Flugtag early. The US Coast Guard, charged with keeping the Williamette River Shipping Channel clear, had deemed that the mass of spectator boats had created an unacceptable navigation hazard. 

Besides arctic ice breakers, the Willamette Channel carries a local pleasure cruise company, barges from the Ross Island Cement Company, and the great Pacific-bound container ships. 

And in fact, a large tour boat had indeed lightly bumped a small pleasure boat. The Coast Guard had evidently decided that the needs of the many corporations outweighed the needs of Red Bull. 

Tour Boat Collides with Pleasure Craft

I reflected on the fact that within a few days' time, the Coast Guard had to exercise their legal authority to unblock the Willamette Channel twice and the idea that an armada of small private craft could block traffic on a working waterway.

The Willamette River, where these events took place, is a part of my daily routine. For about 5 miles of my bike ride to and from work, I follow a paved path along the river. I watch the river flow past its wooded banks, in the early morning and evening, in all seasons.

And as the economy has marginalized ever more persons, making them destitute and homeless, I have seen more and more people residing  beneath cardboard boxes and tattered tarps along the banks of the Willamette. 

There are also the boat people. As housing becomes even more excessively expensive and jobs ever scarcer, an increasing number of persons are obtaining small or medium-size private pleasure boats and using the cabin space for shelter from the elements. 

Most of these craft appear barely sea-worthy, and last year I saw one actually sink. But overall it seems more comfortable than sleeping beneath a tarp. Some of the crafts are actually tied up together, and presumably the occupants have also forged an alliance.

Actual Portland Boat Squatter Settlement, photographed by Flapdoodle

The overall aesthetic effect is somewhat odd, alternately bucolic and dystopian.

Foto by Flapdoodle

The boat people harken back to a time more than a 100 years ago, when a nearby section of the Willamette was described thusly:

 "a scowtown—a host of floating houses—and a graveyard for dilapidated ships called the Boneyard. ....floating shacks, or scows, as made of boards, lumber mill leavings, spare planks, and anything else that residents could get their hands on to construct a slum on the was where all the old boats would go. Some of them they'd repair, and others would get junked and just float out there. And there were lots of people who were living on the boats...They would also take boards off the boats to make hovels.... There was one police report about a fight in the Boneyard over a bucket of beer. And I just picture a bucket of beer in the Boneyard as being really gross. Despite the river being filled with waste and raw sewage, living on a floating hovel had the advantage of being cheap. 'They didn't have to pay any taxes or anything, says  [Portland writer Barney] Blalock of the Willamette's floating residents. 'It was kind of a freebie place to live.'"

(from Portland Mercury, 4-28-15; for the entire article, follow this link:

History of Portland's Waterfront )

Although the growing number of boat people represents a return to an earlier state, they might also foreshadow our future. The boats and flotillas tend to be battered, tattered, and cluttered with mechanical and marine junk, often Jerry-rigged into ingenious, steam-punk looking devices. They tend to evoke images from the exceedingly silly 1995 scifi film Waterworld

Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! is a 1966 dystopian scifi novel concerned with overpopulation and diminishing natural resources. Some of the action takes place on a scowtown, a place where impoverished people make homes on derelict boats.  

In 1973, the book was adapted into the classic film Soylent Green. Soylent Green, by the way, is the first scifi film to use the term Greenhouse Effect. Harrison's novel is set in the year 1999, but Soylent Green takes place in 2022.

The Greenhouse Effect, which describes an excessive accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere and which is steadily causing earth to warm, is the basis for Waterworld. This film posits a future earth after all the ice caps have melted, putting all the land continents underwater. 

Waterworld stages fantastic Jet Ski battles amongst the survivors of Global Warming/Climate Change. The film is exceeding silly because we now already that the hunger, thirst, resource wars, and diseases secondary to Global Warming will wipe all of us out long before the earth becomes Waterworld.

The Jet Skis in Waterworld are significant, seeing as they burn petroleum and make Greenhouse Gases. Jet Skis and other fuel-burning engines are a harbinger of evil. In this way, perhaps Waterworld is not quite so silly as I had thought.  

As I write this, Oregon's Umpqua River is 10F warmer than is healthy for the Steelhead Salmon, killing off 150,000 or so of them in the past couple weeks.

Riding along the river with my bicycle every day, temperatures and weather are things of which I am always keenly aware. When it is scorchingly hot, or when it is 38F in a steady rain, I think of the boat people, and their 'cousins', the homeless who occupy the wooded banks. 

Their numbers increase each year, and each year their ingenuity and resourcefulness, with regard to their respective dwelling spaces and the overall business of survival, seem also to increase. For now, they are mostly ignored by the city and the agents of the law. 

And since no meaningful alteration of the American economic and health systems are likely, it may be that the homeless and the boat people are destined to become parallel societies, alternatives (not necessarily pleasant) to the constrictive bonds of rent, mortgage, and taxes, to which I am subject.

Further upriver on the Willamette are Oregon City, and Champoeg, former territorial capitols from pioneer days. And further upriver still is Salem, the current state capitol. This is in keeping with a long, historical trend for national and regional capitols to be placed alongside a river, a tribute to the historical importance of river transportation.  

The State has also used rivers to delineate boundaries, between nations and provinces. The Columbia River, of which the Willamette is a tributary, marks the border between Oregon and Washington, just as the Rio Grande marks the border between the USA and Mexico. So it is that a river can serve as part of The State's central nervous system, as well as the wall by which it hopes to separate itself from its neighbors.  

Yet for now, this vitally important waterway is permeated with squatters who can evade the tolls and tariffs imposed on the State's other subjects.   

But the wooded banks are also home to deer and coyotes, just as beaver and otters ply the river. Over the years that I have followed this route, I have come to think of the river and these creatures somewhat animistically, ala Johnny Weismueller's Tarzan. That is to say, in a not-rational way, I have come to believe they are my friends. 

On these blistering Greenhouse Effect days, about halfway along my ride, I often stop at a certain public boat dock, lock up my bike, strip off my shirt and shoes, and then I dive, imagining Johnny Weismueller in the waters of the LA Arbouretum, filming an RKO Tarzan adventure. 

Like the aging Ape-Man, I am starting to feel my years, and my waistline is not necessarily appropriate for a loincloth. Yet in the water, I imagine the ex-Olympiad's joy at the simplicity and grace of fluid movement and the liberation from gravity, of the return to one's primal element.

Here in Portland, the current of the Willamette alternately runs 2 directions. Most of the time, it flows downstream, south to north, finally emptying into the Columbia. But the Columbia empties in to the mighty Pacific, and so when there is an incoming tide, the force is sufficient to send an upstream current all the way to Willamette Falls, roughly 100 miles from the coast.  

In the era of Global Warming/Climate Change and frequent droughts, the banks of the Willamette show the rocks and old pilings that would otherwise be underwater. Yet as the ice caps steadily melt, the ocean into which if flows creeps ever higher. 

The river is cool and shining on these summer days, and within its gentle paradoxes, I swim in conscious bemusement, flowing with the temporary relief from the contradictions of modern life.  
Special Bonus Tarzan Clip! 

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