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Sunday, April 17, 2016

Voices From Chernobyl


In the beginning people would bring some products over to the dosimetrist, to check them--they were way over the threshold, and eventually people stopped checking. "See no evil, hear no evil. Who knows what those scientists will think up!" Everything went on its way: they turned over the soil, planted, harvested. The unthinkable happened, but people lived as they'd lived. And cucumbers from their own garden were more important than Chernobyl. - Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, Svetlana Alexievich
I'm not sure how many people read these things. I have some metrics, but it doesn't tell me a lot more than basic numbers about how many people visit and how long they stay (average stay: 5 seconds). I get some city information, but I find that to be trustworthy to only varying degrees. I can say a couple of things: as far as I can remember, nobody in face-to-face real life has said to me, "Oh hey, I like your blog." What does tend to happen is that I'll tell someone about it, they will say "that sounds interesting," I'll give them a link, and I will never hear about it ever again.

So I don't know. I also don't know how everyone interacts with it. Like, for example, at the beginning I was going to say "If you've been reading on this website for a while you probably know that I am optimistic to the point of near-delusion." But as I typed it, I had to ask myself but do they know that? If I have to be honest with myself I can't say what anyone has figured out at all about me via this experiment. I can only see it from my angle. I guess I wouldn't be surprised if at the end of every post what you came away with was, "there goes old man Howie trying to make us feel guilty again."

If that's what you get, I'm sorry.

What I can say is that I try to be an optimist. If there is an overarching theme to the posts found within the hallowed digital halls of Howie's Book Club is that there is ugly stuff in this world, but we can do something about it. But we can't do something about it until we understand the ugly stuff. If there's a fire, you give the dispatcher as much information as possible while the firefighters are on their way, right? We can't fix problems we don't understand.

When I say the world is not ending, I feel like I'm not just making something up. I think the majority of the data we have paints a reasonably optimistic view of the world. But the truth is that I kind of have to hope. I can't get on board with the doomsday preppers, and it's not just because I think it's counterproductive and hopeless. I need society to continue because my life depends on it.

You see, at some point in the perhaps near future your boy Howie is going to need a new kidney. Mine aren't doing so great, actually. It might be this has come up in conversation and I've given some basic details and then said, "I really don't want to talk about it." This might come off as rude, but here's the thing. When I do talk about it, it kind of sends me in a tailspin (oh-ee-ay), and I'm not in a good place when I'm in a tailspin (oh-ee-oh). I put on a good face and I tell you all about sodium and antibodies and how there were several points in my young life where the problem could have been identified and avoided and somehow doctors missed them all.

Then when I get home I lay in bed for a very long time.

As long as I don't talk about it, I don't have to think about it. That's healthy, right? When I drive by a dialysis clinic I don't use that as a moment to process the reality of my having to undergo dialysis someday and its accompanying horrors. Instead I turn up whatever I'm listening to and, like, physically push those thoughts out by gritting my teeth. I distract myself with podcasts and social media and searching for deals on old video games because when it's quiet I think about my organs betraying me like Benedict Arnold. Once they were heroes, my kidneys. But I ignored them, and like Arnold, they don't like to be ignored.

So I pull up this window and I talk and talk about all the horrors in this world and how noble it is to stare them in the face and fight them, and here I am ignoring something vitally, vitally important because when I think too hard about it, it makes me sad. The funny thing is that there are no symptoms, so I can. Because I don't experience health problems, I can pretend they aren't there.
Dirt for them is ink, or earth, or oil stains, not isotopes with short half-lives. When I tried to explain any of this to their parents, I don't think they understood it any better than if I'd been a shaman from an African tribe. "And what is this radiation? you can't hear it and you can't see it... Okay, I'll tell you about radiation: I don't have enough money paycheck to paycheck. The last three days we live on milk and potatoes. Okay?"
Sort of like radiation, you say? Kind of. But not really. I have a problem that can ultimately be fixed. The fix sounds pretty unpleasant and will need me to save up a lot of sick leave, but there's a lot of potential for success and a long life there. And there's massive leaps in technology in the meantime. If I were going to have an organ crap out on me, I could do much worse. Radiation, on the other hand, sticks around. Like passages of Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster stick around in my head after reading them.

I had no idea, but did you know that people are living within the Chernobyl contamination zone right now? Right now, 4.5 million people live and farm in contaminated soil. An area that will not be considered safe for humans in an estimated 20,000 more years.

There are now over 148,274 invalids on the Chernobyl registry in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. There is widespread agreement regarding a rise in thyroid cancer in those who were exposed to the radiation when they were very young. There are reported rises in other thyroid diseases, immune system disorders, and learning problems in children. There are extensive reports of high rates of heart and blood problems and lung and gastrointestinal disorders. However, the cause of these problems is not agreed among scientists and professionals. Some contribute these conditions to the stress of having been exposed to radiation and to the decline in medical care and income following the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Many of those exposed at the time of the accident have now reached adulthood and are having children. There are some indications that these children may be suffering from radiation effects on their parents. (Friends of Chernobyl Centers fact sheet)
Why. Oh my gosh, you guys, why are they living there? Why did people, some within a year, return to their homes to live among poison? Like, we understand that some of them didn't have homes. That other parts of what was once the Soviet Union had devolved into sectarian violence and Chernobyl was a place for refugees to flee. That it was where their parents were buried. But, and I can't emphasize this enough, it was killing them.
Tell everyone about my daughter. Write it down. She's four years old and can sing, dance, she knows poetry by heart. Her mental development is normal, she isn't any different from the other kids, only her games are different. She doesn't play "store," or "school--she plays "hospital." She gives her dolls shots, takes their temperature, puts them on IV. If a doll dies, she covers it with a white sheet. We've been living in the hospital with her for four years, we can't leave her there alone, and she doesn't even know that you're supposed to live at home. When we go home for a month or two, she asks me, "When are we going back to the hospital?" That's where her friends are, that's where they're growing up.
What if we ask ourselves, though? Why do we live in cities where the air quality is literally poisonous? Like radiation and kidney disease, it's invisible and easy to forget. At this point, though, hundreds of peer-reviewed studies have linked poor air quality to pre-natal health problems. None of this is new, either. Some of these studies go back to the 90s. I don't like telling people this. I know lots of people who are having babies and they want the best for their babies but we can't say that we care about babies and not do something about this. We can't spend millions fighting abortion in this state while simultaneously fighting legislation attempting to clean our air. This is insane. This is why I don't write about it because it makes me want to lie down.

That's just air. That's not talking about water pollution, or the die-off of bees, or croplands being ruined by pesticides and herbicides. Think of how these things impact wildlife. And you guys all of this just pales in comparison to the worst one. The one we don't want to talk about and stare in the face and when we hear about it we drown it out with fights over whether Marvel is paying movie critics to give Batman V Superman a bad review. The one that our elected officials choose to ignore because they're being paid to ignore it: climate change.

When I tell people what I do for a living I try my best to describe it. I try to protect habitat. I improve and restore habitat. Sometimes I just go out and count what's there. You know what, though? A huge part of my job is sitting in meetings and hear about how climate change is ruining everything I love. Birds, bears, baby bobcats, aspen stands, rivers, little bitty river otters, deep forests, cute squeaky pikas, and the lives of so many people.

On a walk yesterday I saw a bird nest and thought to myself, well if the birds are still having babies it can't be all bad. They said that at Chernobyl, too. Things are not OK at Chernobyl and they're not OK here, either.  

So here we are. I am a fundamentally optimistic person. I try so hard. I think in so many ways we're doing better as a species in so many ways. That's why I don't want to talk about it.

Some things can't be fixed. I refuse to believe that this isn't one of those things. But. Like. What if it is? "We didn't understand then that the 'peaceful atom' could kill, that man is helpless before the laws of physics."
There's a fragment of some conversation, I'm remembering it. Someone is saying: "You have to understand: This is not your husband anymore, not a beloved person, but a radioactive object with a strong density of poisoning. You're not suicidal. Get ahold of yourself." And I'm like someone who's lost her mind: "But I love him! I love him!" He's sleeping, and I'm whispering: "I love you!" Carrying his sanitary tray, "I love you." I remembered how we used to live at home. He only fell asleep at night after he'd taken my hand. That was a habit of his--to hold my hand while he slept. All night. So in the hospital I take his hand and don't let go.

Many of my posts end with a call to action. Or a plea to be a little nicer. Or do something good for someone else. I don't know what to say about this one. Ride your bike? Vote? I don't know, you guys. Maybe hugs.