Saturday. 6:03 am.
With my major resection three weeks past and the final clean-up operation just ten days away, I am getting impatient, stir-crazy and afflicted with cabin fever. It’s not that I am forbidden by the final details of the treatment plan from adventuring, mind you. It’s just that, after everything that we – the team and I – have gone through over the last eight and a half months, I don’t want to risk confronting any untoward obstacles that may impede success. This, I (and everyone else for that matter), feel is the smartest and safest interim plan. But, despite being so very close to having completed treatment, it totally ignores the elephant in the room. The elephant whose stance oscillates between history and eventuality. The elephant that is constantly stoking the fire of my cabin-fever by asking, “So, now what?”
The poet Li-Young Lee has argued that there are four aspects to any one life. I tend to agree with him. First, there is the outward projection of the self. This is the presentation that the individual purposefully relates to all others. It is chosen, calculated and reserved solo. It is the job title, the Facebook profile, the home address and the Twitter handle. Then, there is the internal projection. Here, the individual, he states, approaches questions that might otherwise risk the stability of the outward persona. They enter the internal monologue that questions right and wrong, beneficence and maleficence, and love and hate. It is where the individual confronts their personal epistemology and ontology. Third, he describes the dark sensuality of the sinister projection where the so-called self embarrassments reside. This, inescapable, is where the individual happily submerges – whether it be nose-picking or masturbation, he says – into the ubiquitous and literal world of unspoken self-titillation. It is a place of escape – where the frightened refugee of one’s self can hide. And, finally, there is the projection of transcendence. This, of course, is the place of self-actualization that the first three, if confronted with honesty and sincerity, will allow the individual to travel. It is the goal – whatever and wherever that may be. It is the wanton unknown to which all people, at base, strive. But, as both he and I agree, it is a projection that is just that, a projection. It is diaphanous. It is a beautiful, omnipotent spectre. Metaphorically, as the cliche goes, it is the intangible idea of the journey that outwits the destination. It is, indeed, the projection to which Plato’s cave-chained are blinded. But, it is also the promise of freedom should they break free to turn their head. It is divinity. It is God. Like Li-Young, these thoughts render me both energized and exhausted at the same time. Alive and paralyzed. They confront me with the vigorous promise of self-determination amidst the irony of fated time. They bring both control and chaos.
Expanding and swift, henceforth,
Elements, breeds, adjustments, turbulent, quick and audacious,
A world primal again, vistas of glory incessant and branching,
A new race dominating previous ones and grander far, with new contests,
New politics, new literatures and religions, new inventions and arts.
These! my voice announcing – I will sleep no more but arise,
You oceans that have been calm within me! how I feel you, fathomless, stirring, preparing unprecedented waves and storms.
– WW, Starting from Paumanok, 1881
So, now what? That, of course, is the question. Once I have been wholly liberated, how will I proceed? Cancerfree and with a continuous tube, how do I begin again? At this point, I’m not sure, but I have thought deeply about Li-Young and I do have some ideas. On number one, become labeled again as ‘physician and surgeon’ rather than ‘sick and cancerous’. On two, embrace and love myself with honesty. Three, enjoy without guilt a life of earned hedonism. And, fourth? We’ll just have to listen to Ol’ Uncle Walt and see…
Ahh, cancer. You make life sultry and ragged. You have assaulted and scarred me. And, I am coming to the realization that I need to thank you for it. Sigh. Please, reader, excuse my rambling sentimentality. It’s the emotions, you see. But, if you will, take my hand and enjoy it with me. That said, here is Rebecca and part two…
On Boulder and Nuclear Physics
Our approach to the trailhead was welcomed by a break in the clouds, as Colorado clouds are known to do. The rolling hills above Boulder had begun to shed the weight of the gray onto the flatlands below. The parting of the cloud-cover was slowly revealing the dense alpine forest of the foothills – Lodgepole Pine, Douglas Fir and Quaking Aspen. The occasional openings in the earthy green forest canopy and the remnants of the dark clouds brought forth sun-streaked views of the Continental Divide rising high above the Great Plains to the east.
“So where were we again?”
“Nuclear science is beautiful and you are nuts,” she replied.
“Oh yeh…but really, pure science is as refined and clean as any other art,” I begged. “Maybe even better than art – it’s natural; no inspiration; no muse.”
“Okay,” she said with a roll of her eyes. I could tell, however, that she was becoming intrigued. She was curious almost to fault. “Tell me how the science that allows us to make a nuclear bomb is beautiful.”
“To make a long story short,” I said. “We figured-out that the atom is made up of protons, neutrons and electrons. Protons and neutrons smashed together in the middle – the nucleus – with the electrons sort of flying around on the outside. Think of it like the solar system…sun in the center…planets whipping around the outside…nothing in the middle…”
“I get it,” She smirked, terse-eyed and laughing. “Even I learned that much in school and I might even say that it is a pretty description. But, I still don’t quite get your fascination.”
“…that’s a great story, right? The whole sun and planets thing? Sort of like a description in a child’s fantasy…like a fairy tale…”
“I guess so,” she said while fumbling around with her helmet and cycling gear. Adding, under her breath, “…with a scary ending.”
“True,” I agreed. “But, do you know that the entire story is wrong? Almost entirely wrong.”
The parking lot at the Sourdough Trail trailhead was deserted. Even the usual communal beggars – Scrub Jays, Red-tailed and Yellow Pine chipmunks – were absent from their posts. The recently departed storm had driven them to shelter.
“What did you say?” she asked, handing down a bicycle from the back of the truck. “What do you mean wrong?”
“Well, it’s really not so much wrong as ridiculously incomplete. Guilt by omission. You remember from school that protons are positively charged, electrons negatively, and neutrons have no charge, yes?”
“Yeh,” she answered.
“And that like charges repel…opposite charges attract…?”
“How can the protons be smashed in the tiny nucleus together if they are supposed to repel each other?”
“Yes,” she said. “Good question. How can they do that?”
“Well, protons are made up of even smaller parts held together with even stronger forces,” I said. “The fairy tale is never that simple.”
The Sourdough Trail itself begins at a little over nine thousand feet and gently rises along the base of the Indian Peaks to an apex that nears timberline. The Indian Peaks – jagged summits, knife-blade arêtes, wind-blasted tundra glades and glacier carved cirque valleys – loomed above and presented an unparalleled backdrop of geologic magnificence. Rising high above us were Arapaho Peak and Mount Neva and Arikaree and Shoshoni.
“The gravitational and electromagnetic forces still work, but the others add a whole new dimension to the picture,” I explained. “The most important is the nuclear force. Then there are also the strong forces that act between the quarks and the weak forces that help maintain the stability of the nucleus. They do that in part by emitting beta particles or some other radiation of one form or another. It’s like taking that sun and planets sketch and adding the little things that make it all the more interesting. You know…life on earth…sunburn…hurricanes…Van Gogh…” Rebecca stared at me and smiled at my lunacy. We both smiled and then broke-out in laughter.
“That’s really incredible,” she said, mounting her bike and starting off down the soft, pine needle strewn trail. A great green roof of coniferous boughs enclosed the winding corridor that led into the deeper reaches of the forest.
“What’s a beta particle?”
“You really can’t still be interested in this?” I asked, pulling beside her on the slowly rising double-track. She nodded.
“It’s a type of radioactive decay. It’s an electron.”
“What?” she barked, slowing as she looked over at me.
“A type of radioactive decay. If a nucleus is out of balance, it will emit particles and energy to bring things back to normal. This is where the whole radiation problem becomes important. You see, everything must be in balance – protons, neutrons, electrons and all the forces – or bad things can happen. Hell, look at Van Gogh, even he had to maintain balance, sometimes violently, but balanced in the end. If things get out of hand, nature has its own little mechanisms to fix the problems too – radioactive decay is simply one way that nature maintains balance at the atomic level.”
“I guess I really never thought of it that way,” she said. “That’s like what Ishmael was talking about…balance.”
“Yes!” I shouted, nearly falling off my bike as I yelled in agreement. “That’s absolutely it. Everything must maintain balance…”
We continued slowly up the trail.
“Balance,” I said, talking as much to myself as to Rebecca. “Just like Van Gogh…those swirling stars and gnarled, evil-tempered trees crowding above the quaint, sleepy little town. Do you think the people there know the mad imbalance in the outside world? Could they even attempt to comprehend the thought? How does their nucleus decompress? Or, do they simply sleep it all away? I guess only Van Gogh knows the answers…”
“Kinda beautiful, huh?” I asked, thrusting my nose in the air deliberately while gliding past her on the wide trail. Mocking my sarcasm, she looked over at me with her dry grin, the rays of the sun streamed down through the aspen to gently caress her face – beautifully warm rays that had been freed from all forms of storm-cloud bondage.
* * *
No action. The no-action alternative assumes all further work at the site would cease and the site would remain uncontrolled in its current condition. No further characterization of the site would take place. Dewatering and consolidation of the tailings pile through the currently existing system of vertical band drains would continue, but no maintenance or monitoring would occur. Contaminated soils on the pile and elsewhere on site would remain exposed at the surface. No dust control measures would be taken to prevent airborne releases of contaminated tailings or soil. No cleanup of other chemical contamination or building decommissioning would occur. No actions would be taken to remediate groundwater or prevent discharge of contaminated groundwater to the Colorado River. Elevated levels of ammonia and other chemicals would continue to be present in the river. No controls would be put in place to prevent erosion of the tailings pile by high stages of the Colorado River or by flooding of Moab Wash. No institutional controls would be placed on the site and unrestricted access by the general public could occur; no restrictions would be placed on groundwater usage.