“Once-ler! You're making such smogulous smoke - my poor swomee swans, why they can't sing a note! No one can sing who has smog in his throat.”
The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
The calendar tells me it’s summer, but I know better. Sure, the birds are not flying south. They aren’t even packing their bags. But, they’ve booked their tickets. Shoot, even tonight I put on my old, beige jacket. The one with coffee stains just a bit darker than the fabric. The calendar tells me it’s summer. But I know. I better buy a new jacket. Fall is coming to Seattle. The season of rain. Season of Seahawks. Starting this week, summer is over.
The kids are back to school; the libraries are quiet; the playground at Matthew’s Beach, idyllic. Sure, a junky was in the bathroom when I went to go relieve myself. I ended running to the top of the hill, stealing away behind a bush. Sure, there were tents in the woods. Who wants to go in the woods anyway? I’m a city guy. Not a mountain man. In the parking lot, there were a few old RV’s. They were there the last time I was at the park, too. Is it my business if people are living in the parking lot smoking meth? At least they have an old T-Shirt in the window separating my world from theirs. So turn the other cheek and complain about it on Nextdoor like I do. You just keep minding the law, while they keep breaking it. All is forgiven in the eyes of an unequal system. If all was equal, we’d be communists. Lord knows we don’t want that. Not if it means one person can be better than the next. So…Welcome to Asphyxiation City!!! Don’t wanna choke on liberty. You gotta puff it down in small tokes.
This is the city where rabbits run free, ripe apples are left to rot on the ground in public parks; people who work at Amazon drink their coffee from Starbucks; camping is legal on the city sidewalks. Not to mention the mountain air is fresh and crisp. Stepping outside this morning with my cup of organic joe, I took a deep breath. “Ahh,” I said, “nothing beats this damn mountain air.” And air is important. Just ask anybody who lives on Mars. They need a mask. Here we don’t. But that wasn’t always true. Last month it was a different story.
Early in the month of a sweltering August, I took my little ones for a walk. It had been a hot dry summer but I didn’t care. I was getting a farmer’s tan and drinking beer on the regular. Yet, that morning something was different. A thin haze hung on the horizon and the sky looked like it was blushing. Of course I knew there were fires in California (CNN sends me notifications even though I swear I have turned them off a handful of times). It wasn’t until I overheard an old know-it-all at the library, regurgitating an article she had read about these fires, did I realize we were getting residual smoke from down south. Did that bother me? No, I had seen worse than a little haze in my years.
When I was a youngster, my brother Joel and I were staying with my Aunt Vera and her daughters Erica, Emily, and Elaina somewhere in the Cascade Mountains. I would lie if I told you I remembered more than two things. I remembered playing tennis for the first time and thinking “this sport is awesome.” Then, I remembered an all-out mountain fire blazing all around us that evacuated the whole town we were staying at. Just like the game of tennis, I remembered the evacuation being an adventure like something out of a disaster movie. As we evacuated you could see the tongues of fire licking the air and the heat was just tremendous. Too bad, my memory after this was devoured by the fires of time. Of this fire, these are the images that remain.
Many years later, after 9/11, when I worked at a yogurt shop in San Fernando Valley (yes I said it, yogurt shop) there was an even bigger blaze. To me there was nothing exciting about it. Only pure torture and suffering, albeit on a personal level. Though I couldn’t see the flames, smoke engulfed the valley. The sky was red like a tomato. I felt like I was being cooked in a cauldron of marinara. My allergies were already hell living in California where, because of dams and irrigation, plants are devilishly blooming 365 days a year. But with this fire, not only could I not stop sneezing, I could hardly breathe. On the upside, I think I slept at the yogurt shop because the smoke was so noxious I didn’t want to bike home. I worked three days in a row, making a bunch of money. The situation also convinced me to move to the beach. But that seems like ancient history. Two weeks ago, the fire though distant, had a powerful effect of immediacy.
Where there’s smoke, you know the drill. Fire came close to home. The whole city changed. and weren’t in Cali anymore. To the west, north, and east the mountains were ablaze. The smoke tumbled down from the mountains like an avalanche, settling onto our fine city. The following week was like that of a dream.
Imagine waking up with a fist full of Starbucks. But then you realize you’ve been awake for hours. How many? I don’t know. My phone is dead. Then you realize you are at Northgate Mall with about 30 other moms and babysitters (because, yes, these are the colleagues of the stay at home dad). Yet, here I was. My kids hadn’t been to the park in three days. The smoke was already getting to our heads. It was tough to remember what the days before were like but after a quick meditation I am able to recall the most rudimentary events.
The first day was fun. We played, painted, watched Cat in the Hat, then it turned reckless. I filled up the plastic buckets from the balcony with water. We had a water fight. There was a point Amara, Lennox, and I almost drowned. Funny thing is, I never felt like I woke up. The headache I had wasn’t from the scrambled eggs, I can tell you that. My boogers were gray and lost their crispy texture. E
We needed fresh air so I opened a window. From down the street, through the fog, Jimi Hendrix played from a speaker so loud I thought I was dead. Purple Haze indeed.
The second day, “let’s go for a ride, kiddos.” We drove until I had an empty tank and the kids couldn’t stand to listen to “Doo Ron Ron” and “Hey Ya” anymore. We made it to Mukilteo and had a fish&chips (should be one word), then I drove them around where I grew up in Everett until they cried. I cried too. Driving back to Seattle, the homeless people camping out near the freeway finally looked at home in this apocalypse as they emerged from the clouds of smoke.
And apocalypse it is. The ancient meaning of the word apocalypse is more subtle and less “bang bang” hit you over the head than the American version. With this word especially, we are living in a vocabulary haze. We have been taught for it to mean something cataclysmic or final, as in the end of the world. When you start changing the words or events from their original state of being, the truth becomes more obscure, then you have to rely on an imagination shrouded in frankincense and myrrh. It is then ironic that in the days of smoke and haze, the truth can be revealed. So, when it comes to truth, I mean the simple truth of which I speak, it is quite simple. The experts say fires like this are only going to get worse. They say for us to expect this on the regular. Of this, I have no doubt they are right. So what are these fires a product of? Simply, our modern lives. Go back to the industrial revolution. Then read Marx. Then you will know this apocalypse was prophesized. Enough said. It is not the end of the world. Just a great change where certain truths are revealed about how we are living. Perhaps it is not too late to change the direction we are headed.
So now we are living in a land where the smoke has cleared, but a haze hangs still in the air. The fires may be distant or their faint flames may be on the verge of becoming embers. Smoke from their flames still reach us. Some of these fires are harder than others to put out. Some will smolder and catch fire far after the time we thought they were extinguished. In Seattle, the drug problem is immense and it is a major cause of homelessness. It is not the only cause of homelessness but the reluctant acceptance of hard drugs obscures the rest of the problem. The homeless issue is like the fires burning from the west, north, and east. You can’t fight each flame the same. So how we tackle this apocalypse will determine how the ones in the future will be fought.