Wednesday, July 7, 2010

in case you're needing some inspiration today

On June 25, 2010, Poet Jon Sands delivered the commencement address for the Bronx Academy of Letters – A charter school in Bronx, New York, founded on the concept that, “students who can express themselves clearly in writing can do better in any path they choose.”
Class of 2010. Here we are. 27 years, 6 months, 26 days, 7 hours since Michael Jackson released Thriller (which is still the best selling album in music history). 143 years since Christopher Latham Sholes invented the modern typewriter. 46 years, 9 months, 28 days since Martin Luther King Jr. told a crowd of over 200,000 that he had a dream. And, 36 years, 4 months, 6 days, 8 hours since my own father – after dropping out of his second year in college – decided to take a computer class to make more money than was possible at his construction job. And with a clear Manhattan morning waiting outside the glass windows, he asked the foxy lady wearing big glasses – who would turn out to be my mother – if the seat next to her was taken… and here I am.

All of which is to say, there are many paths that have brought us to this room today. Stories which led to stories which lead to right now. There is no person in this room without a great, great, great, great, great, great grandmother. Or more accurately, 128 great, great, great, great, great, great grandmothers. Beautiful ladies (I’m assuming) with favorite foods, dreams at night, who lived entire lives, and created lives that have led specifically to you… which has led you – here. We are in this room because an incredible line of history said, “yes,” when it could have said, “no.”

In 2003, my Uncle Don was practicing law in New Jersey. Don taught himself to play guitar when he was in high school, spent years covering other people’s songs at parties or reunions. Every so often – he would write a song for a funeral. Always, it would land with precision on what that person actually meant to each of us, individually. At 47, he decided his guitar made him happier than nearly anything else. He sunk an incredible amount of everything he had, financially and energetically, into creating an album; contacted professional musicians with samplings of his work, to ask if they would join him. Now there are maybe 1,500 people outside of my family who have this remarkable CD – someone I love doing what they love. Eighteen months after the disc was released, my uncle was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. After a strikingly short 5 months, he passed, leaving behind a wife and three children (ages 13, 15, and 17).

When we miss him. When the people who love him need to spend time with him – they skip photo albums and old videos, and instead go to a CD. To the documentation of him doing what he loved. Not to be a millionaire. Not to be famous. But to give this world some account that says, this – this right here – is what it feels like to be me.

Each of us entered this room – as we do any room – carrying many labels. Which is to say, today, you are high-school graduates. There are 64 of you. Two months ago you may have been the kid freestlying battle raps outside McDonald’s with three friends who couldn’t stop laughing, or the quiet girl in the back of a library – her nose glued into a 3.8 GPA.

I spend a significant amount of time being the crazy dude who came to someone else’s classroom to talk about how poetry is amazing. Right now, I’m the commencement speaker. I promise, in three hours, I’ll be the guy who looks uncomfortable in a tie on the downtown 4 train. The way it feels to live a life that can only be yours is never as clean as whatever label this world attaches to you. If you are alive — Is every person here alive?… If you are alive in this world, you can attest. What it feels like to be you is more complicated than what it looks like to be you.

So, is there ever a time you are more yourself than when doing what you love – with the people you love? Who you are exists in what you love. It is how you tell the children you have yet to bring into this world the person you were today. To tell the you who will exist 20 years from now what it felt like to close the locker door on your high school years.

We are all here because today is important. A chance to reflect on the way our lives are changing. We are also here – to celebrate – the choices you have made that led to your caps and gowns. I think we can take a minute to blow the roof off for that.

But, you will have many todays. No one else can decide how they will look. Michael Jackson, when recording Billie Jean, could not have known the way our ankles would pop for decades. Martin Luther King Jr. chose to ascend the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, not to become a cultural icon, but to communicate the vision he had for a nation. My Uncle Don could never have known what his artistry would mean to his wife, his nieces and nephews, his parents, his three children. He made music because it was what he loved. It was who he was. A choice to say, “yes,” when he could have said, “no.”

We have been afforded the opportunity to write our own chapters in the story of this life because millions of people, over thousands of years, have said “yes.” It is not feasible for me to tell you what is possible in your life. History has written you here, the next chapter is yours. Here is the news: It’s supposed to be fun. It’s not supposed to be easy (the juiciest stuff rarely is). It is supposed to be yours. And what better news can there be?

I cannot wait to witness the stories you write into this world. Congratulations Bronx Academy of Letters, Class of 2010.

Big Oil Blunder

The Worst Man-Made Environmental Disasters:

Just how bad is the Deepwater Horizon oil spill? With a significant amount of oil still flowing through deep undersea currents, out of sight, the consequences will not be known for some time.

Some are even wondering if the spill heralds the apocalypse. In fact, the incident that began with an explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig is not even the worst oil spill in the history of the Gulf of Mexico, which was already one of the most oil-polluted bodies of water in the world. Despite its untold economic and environmental impacts, it likely will not inflict the human toll of the world’s ugliest environmental catastrophes.

To assign the title of “worst disaster” would be to risk trivializing tragedy: all environmental disasters are terrible and worth remembering. But as we consume the well-justified avalanche of news about the spill in the gulf, let’s do so with a dose of context.

Here’s how the Deepwater Horizon spill stacks up against previous environmental accidents:  

Bhopal, India, Gas Leak
On a December morning in 1984, a cloud of toxic gas leaked from a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, killing more than 3,000 people in a span of days and poisoning hundreds of thousands more in the years to come. The Indian government’s count of fatalities caused by the accident stands at about 15,000, making it the deadliest man-made environmental disaster in history.

The Deepwater Horizon spill has, at the moment, killed 11 oil rig workers who died in the explosion on April 20. It is also expected to devastate marine life in wide swaths of the Gulf of Mexico. As scientists told NEWSWEEK’s Sharon Begley, the economic and environmental impact of undersea oil plumes could reach far beyond what the toxic cloud in India did to Bhopal, a city of about 800,000. While the initial cloud of gas at Bhopal killed livestock and stripped trees bare in and around the densely populated slums that immediately surrounded the plant, the worst environmental impact of the explosion in Bhopal was more nefarious: the BBC returned to the site 20 years later and found dangerous chemicals stored haphazardly at the former factory. Groundwater was contaminated to levels known to cause serious health problems, but locals were (and apparently still are) drinking water they believed to be toxic because they had no other choice.

Like Union Carbide (now owned by Dow Chemical), BP and its corporate partners will face billions of dollars in legal claims. This month, eight former Union Carbide officers were convicted of criminal negligence.

London’s ‘Great Smog,’ 1952
For four days in December 1952, a thick, acid-infused smog engulfed London like an overturned saucer. Stagnant air trapped fumes from coal stoves, gas-burning cars, and industrial emissions. Day turned to darkness, and visibility dropped, at times, to a mere foot. An estimated 4,000 people died in a single month from the immediate effects of the toxic air on their respiratory system, while 8,000 additional deaths were later attributed to the smog. Sulfur dioxide in the air was believed to be the main culprit.

Much of what is known about this awful spell of air pollution documents its devastating impact on humans—written accounts make little mention of long-term environmental harm. That makes it difficult to measure against the catastrophe unfolding in the gulf, where entire ecosystems are at risk but where human victims will probably feel the worst impact in their pockets, not their lungs. The smog did spur the British Parliament to pass the Clean Air Act, allowing authorities to control the use of coal fuel in certain areas to mitigate the risk of future smog.

Ixtoc Blowout, 1979
News reports on the 1979 blowout of an undersea oil well off the Gulf of Mexico seem all too familiar today. There was a failure of the “blowout preventer,” an undersea fail-safe device that is supposed to close off a gushing pipe. There were frustrated reports about the Mexican government vastly underestimating the volume of oil gushing from the seabed, much like the lowball guesses from BP in April.

Day after day for a span of 10 months, a torrent of oil rushed into the Gulf of Mexico after the initial explosion near the Yucatan Peninsula. The spill was checked only in part by a cap that was lowered over the leak to siphon off a portion of the flow. After four months an oil slick had covered about half of Texas’s 370-mile gulf shoreline, devastating tourism. Only by drilling two relief wells to connect to the initial hole, then pumping mud and concrete into the gushing pipe could Petroleos Mexicanos, or PeMex, Mexico’s national oil company, stop the leak.

“The accident does suggest that blowout prevention equipment is not designed to handle the worst emergencies,” The New York Times wrote in an April 1980 editorial after the leak was finally capped. “Could a blowout in American waters be quickly capped and cleaned up?”

By the easiest measure—volume of oil spilled—PeMex’s Ixtoc I oil well was far worse than the Deepwater Horizon well: 140 million gallons of oil poured out of the Mexican well, compared to the estimated 94.2 million gallons that could escape from the well near Louisiana by mid-August, when a relief well is expected to be complete. (The worst oil spill in history occurred in 1991, when the Iraqi army ripped apart Kuwait’s oil infrastructure and released more than 252 million gallons during the Persian Gulf War. The Exxon Valdez crash in 1989 released 10.9 million gallons.)

But unlike Deepwater Horizon, the Ixtoc I disaster occurred in 150 feet of water and a fortunate turn in winds and currents mitigated its impact on the coastline. Today, researchers using submersibles continue to detect massive plumes of oil rising from the depths. No one has ever observed what happens when oil gushes from the sea floor 5,000 feet down, and residents along the entire gulf coast are still nervously awaiting what currents and winds Mother Nature has in store this summer.

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Explosion, 1986
In April 1986 an explosion at the core of a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl power station released more than 50 tons of radioactive material into the atmosphere above Ukraine. About 350,000 people had to be evacuated from the area, leaving villages and an entire city, Prypriat, abandoned. Estimates of deaths and radiation-related illnesses from the incident vary widely: a United Nations study found that by 2005 there had been 59 deaths directly related to the incident, while Ukrainian officials have said that during the cleanup following the blast, more than 4,000 people died and 70,000 were disabled by radiation-related illness.

Deepwater Horizon’s best historical parallel might indeed be Chernobyl. That accident set back nuclear power in Europe much as the Deepwater Horizon spill has torpedoed momentum toward what was to be an expansion of deep-ocean drilling in the U.S. “We were just getting to the point where we could think about talking about drilling off parts of Florida, off the Atlantic coast,” said Byron King, an oil analyst with Agora Financial and contributor to The Daily Reckoning. “Within moments of the news hitting the wires, people were like … ‘Not off my coast.’ ”

So what’s an oil spill to us teenagers? This oil spill, to me, not only produces a solid tangible image of our nation’s dependence on fossil fuels but the greed and sorrow that come along with it. 

From a  biological standpoint…we are killing. The effect on the wildlife in the gulf is monstrous and irreversible. We dump what is left over from our cars into the oceans. Then we dig our greedy fingers into what the ocean has left to offer to get more fossil fuels to fill our desire for speed, comfort, and war. Is there anything we can do to help?
We can monitor our carbon footprint, even cut down on using are cars for distances we can walk or ride a bike. To Kill two birds with one stone, eliminate the over use of gases and become a better person for it.