Thursday, December 01, 2016

Tin Cup

There's a word for a sailing vessel stalled at sea: becalmed. With no wind in its slackened sails, it's frozen, trapped by its own lack of independent mobility.

The same can be said for the human body when the wind is knocked out of it. Or the human heart when it loses an outside source of energy and joy that buoys it, right or wrong.
Not all useful things move independently. But to say a still sail is becalmed belies the anxiety of the sailors on board.
I had to give someone up recently, suddenly, someone I was very close to. It was necessary but no less painful for the need. We walk a road together until we can't anymore, or until one goes ahead of the other, somewhere the becalmed soul can't follow.
(You don't realize when you block someone on Instagram that all their likes on your thousands of pictures will disappear as well, visual, virtual evidence of the hole in your days and your life and your heart.)
I feel like that small, stalled vessel suddenly alone and immobile on the vastness of the sea. Becalmed.
The wind will pick up again.
It has to.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Leaps and Bounds

I am so busy! And I waste so much time. I miss writing/blogging. It's the first day of my every-other-3-day-weekend, so let's do some.

If you had told me twenty years ago or even just three years ago -- end of June 2009 -- where I would be now and what I would be doing (and how I would feel about it), I would have looked at you funny, laughed, and probably never spoken to you again. You freak.

I have no idea how I got here.

I am 20 lbs. heavier, probably half an inch shorter, a whole lot wetter, and minus some critical Vitamin D. I am down one good cat and plus one good man. I am 880 miles from where I started. I am 1,237 miles from where I intended to be. I am 734 miles from where I stopped in the middle and would gladly have stayed. I am so far away from the beach. But here we are.

I was never going to go back to an isolating, repetitive job at a plant. I was never going to work the night shift or 12-hour shifts or weekends and holidays again. I was never going to wear neon vests or a hard hat or steel-toed boots again. I am now doing all these things. And I'm getting paid very well for it.

What am I doing?

I am an operator. I am in control in the control room. I adjust chemicals. I increase flows. I close valves. I fill tanks. I take samples. I run tests. I meet regulations. I gather data and look for patterns. As an operator, I am a chemist. I am a biologist. I am an engineer. I am a mechanic. I am "authorized personnel."

Sometimes I use computers, sometimes I do things by hand.

I work with compounds that could easily kill me and some that can only hurt:
Ozone, O3 -- why can we breathe elemental oxygen but not the triatomic form, trioxygen? Because it's an unstable allotrope and a wicked oxidizer. It kills or disables disease-causing organisms in the water, but dissipates immediately so provides no further protection downstream.
Hydrofluorisilicic acid, H2SiF6 -- if I get it on my skin, it can stop my heart. It's good for kids' teeth (I'm living, biting proof) and it doesn't hurt adults. And no, I'm not having the "government mind control drug" conversation with you.
Carbon dioxide, CO2 -- ever heard of the canary in the coal mine?
Sodium hydroxide, NaOH -- better known as caustic soda or lye, it can cause instant severe burns. We use it to raise the pH of the water for corrosion control for metal pipes and fittings.
Sodium hypochlorite, NaClO --the industrial version of household bleach, it contains 12% chlorine instead of 3%. Think quadruple Clorox. We use it to further disable disease-causing organisms and to provide disinfectant protection in the pipelines, all the way to the consumer's tap. If you can smell chlorine in your drinking water, we're not adding enough. Confused? If you can smell it, that means it's working. Which means there's still stuff in the water (or in your aerator; clean that out!) for it to work on. If it has nothing to work on, you usually can't smell it in the quantities we use. (Swimming pools are a different story -- they're using far more because it has less time to work. You are an immediate health hazard and they can't risk you making other people sick, so they pour more in. Don't drink pool water.)
Water, H2O -- the stuff we can't live without, the reason I operate. An obvious drowning hazard.

On my 12-hour shift yesterday, 35 million gallons of water went through my hands to the faucets of half a million people in King and Pierce counties. People work around me -- mechanics, managers, inspectors, maintenance workers, engineers, administrators -- who support me, but at the end of the day it's my decisions and my responsibility... my certificate on the wall, my name logged into the control computers.

I am one of six operators, two teams of three. Because of my schedule and the fact that I don't spend that much time with my coworkers, including all the above-mentioned support personnel, even after nine months here I don't really know them that well. On the night shift I wade through the debris of their days: dirty dishes in the sink, mud from their boots, coffee cups and pop cans in the work trucks we share, their handwriting in the log book. E-mails. Papers left on the glass of the copier or in the output tray. Vests and hardhats and more personal clothing on the hooks in the hall, like flannel jackets and waterproof Carhartt coats. Pictures of their families on their desks and office walls. Sometimes it feels like a ghost town.

Outside the walls of my control room and my chemical facility -- both of which are the size of airplane hangars -- they're building a $250 million filter plant that will expand the current facilities by thousands of square feet. Right now I'm a water treatment operator without a plant to operate, unless you count the chemicals I add to the water. I'm not filtering, I'm not coagulating, I'm not really "treating." I will be by 2014.

Dump trucks and backhoes and giant loaders are busy tearing up the peaceful meadow behind the chemical building where a month ago elk and killdeer and assorted forest critters romped. Now it's a giant mud pit. In less than a week they knocked down hundreds of oak and cottonwood and alder trees to clear a staging area the size of two city blocks.

There will be four buildings two stories high and a clearwell forty feet deep and a four million gallon tank to match the ten million gallon tank on the hill. If you don't know what a structure that holds ten million gallons of water looks like, you're missing out. It's big. It's like a small stadium. In the basement of the biggest structure we'll have a pipe-filled filter gallery that will rival the longest, largest halls in the Louvre, a monument of our own. We'll drive forklifts through it. When all this is done it will be the largest drinking water treatment plant in Washington and one of the largest plants on the west coast.

I guess that's why I'm here. I wanted to see it happen from a front row seat. I chose this.

It's still a surprise to be here.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


It's your first night in a strange place. You hear sounds and feel sensations you've never experienced before. The fabric against your skin, the silence of night without a constant heartbeat. Beyond the fragile film of your eyelid, there are pinpoint-bright blurs.

You are new in the world. Today you were one of roughly 490,000 babies born. To the world you are not special; you are a statistic, a future voter, a future consumer, future driver, worker, taxpayer.

What makes you different? We do. Your family. A father who loses his temper so rarely that for years it was thought not to exist. A mother whose only object in life was to be your mother. A brother... well, what a brother! You'll see. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, pets. We waited so long for you.

Happy birthday, Hezekiah Bruce Morris. I can't wait to meet you.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Gideon Faints

Probably the people who would be interested already know that my dearest and only sibling, an older-by-three-years sister named Morgan, is expecting her first child in March. If you didn't know and you are interested and you feel you are someone who really should have already known but didn't until now, please do not be mad at me; you probably also know that there were a couple false starts that became real losses in the last few years, involving the kinds of emotions nobody wants to relive and lots of morphine and washing blood out of clothes in the wee hours while thinking, "now we will never meet him/her," and it's a shame two miscarriages might have made us wary and hesitant to get loudly celebratory even after the issue that caused them was taken care of. But that's how it is.

Anyway we're out of the woods now, third time's a charm, little bugger's kickin' her black and blue in there (I know because I SAW HIM), and OMG I'M GOING TO BE AN AUNT.

Technically I already am; she has a good and goofy and gracious stepson who is now 17 and whom we would not trade for all the world, and for all intents and purposes I am his Aunt, Aunt A (and also to two Labrador retrievers). Which was great practice; thanks, Cordale. (He can lift me. Which doesn't mean I can't still lift him, DOUBLE NEGATIVES ROCK.)

It blows my mind that without making a purchase or creating a pattern or deciding on size and color and fabric, my sister is making something -- make that someone -- out of nothing. Not really nothing, per se, but you know what I mean. We will have a new family member. We will have another person. A WHOLE, ACTUAL PERSON, sort of uninteresting at first, but wait 'til he starts walking and talking. He's going to argue with me someday. I can tell.

Yeah, it's a boy. The first two were, too. And she's not sure they want to use the name she had picked out when they started down this road. And that's okay. She can name him after the 14th king of Judah for all I care, even if it freaks out the Grandmas.

When we were little girls in our polyester and cable knits and moon boots in the Wyoming of 19-- when the snow actually drifted so deep you could walk up it to the roof (or make tunnels in it big enough to walk through), we didn't play with baby dolls. We played with Breyer horses and Legos and cardboard refrigerator boxes. I remember a vague sense of unease when one day towards teendom she announced that she wanted a baby doll with a porcelain face and hands that looked like a real baby's, and she got it and put it in our christening dress. And when she would cradle it in her arms she looked like a mother. And I felt uneasy and left behind, because I didn't have that gene, the mother gene. (Or I did, but it was dormant.) And in California when Mr. Sixtus praised her very brain and insisted she go into chemistry or physics, or medicine even and cure cancer, she was like, "No, I just want to be a mom."

And she will be. In March.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

I Street Bridge Lets the Hornblower By


I recommend watching this with the volume off, since there's nothing to hear but the river wind, the incessant clanging of the warning bells, and Brent's sudden, violent sneeze (after which I bless him). (Also, it doesn't really get interesting until about the :50 mark, so feel free to skip ahead.)

This is the I Street Bridge in Sacramento, a historic metal truss swing bridge that neither lifts nor draws but actually spins on the most amazing giant iron gear system to get out of the way of boats when the river is high, as it is now. (We compared the Sacramento River's current depth on the scale at Tower Bridge, 23', to the river depth last July when family came to visit: a mere 7'. What a difference some rain makes!) The I Street Bridge is a dual-level affair, carrying vehicle and foot traffic on the top and trains on the bottom. A favorite landmark of mine.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Bear Flag and the Delta Breeze

The language of Southern California is the dialect of an obscenely populous coastal desert, preoccupied with palm and gull, marine layer and sand and stucco and soft Spanish vowels. Los Angeles and San Diego sprawl side by side on the coast, eyeing each other, cohabiting but not codependent. L.A. harbors the bustling entertainment industry, San Diego the U.S. Navy, and surf culture roils in between. Throughout the desert suburbs, into the steep eucalyptus canyons dividing residential rashes both glitzy and grim, ghettos, barrios, strip malls, golf courses, amusement parks, campuses, and all the concrete capillaries buzz with the charge of economic and cultural interests at complete odds with the seat of State government an entire workday's drive north on Interstate 5. (And there's still several hours' worth of state north of that.)

I lived in California nine years and never heard the term "Bear Flag."

I never thought about Sacramento sharing California realty with San Diego and L.A., much less as the capital. I never thought about Sacramento at all. I was a teenager, and uninterested in politics or geography unless people I loved were located in a place, and I knew nobody north of Barstow. I was aware when I moved here last year that politics might be inescapable. As it turns out, I didn't have time to give it much thought until budget woes and water issues began to directly impact my job. (The water issues I anticipated. They're why I moved here in the first place.)

As I traveled around California this year, I began to encounter the living legacies of things I learned in elementary school, before I even knew I would one day consider myself largely a product of this state and therefore entitled to call its history my own. I was the only person in my 8th grade history class, my first month in California, who already knew who Junipero Serra was and what John Sutter discovered and how the Donner Party died that terrible winter of 1846. Most of the children who were born in southern California did not know their own history. But it's one thing to read history in a book, and another altogether to see the places where it was made.

I remember becoming aware of the bear on the California State flag back then and, looking around at the palm trees and stucco, wondering what it had to do with California. I thought Yosemite Sam was from Texas. The Redwood Forest was only a recurring lyric in the Woodie Guthrie folk song and redwood itself was just the splintered, bleached boards of backyard fences in Kemmerer, Wyoming. I didn't know about Napa's famous wine or the State Water Project or the swallows of San Juan Capistrano, or all the parts of California that really are still wilderness, Mt. Shasta and the northern counties. Not yet.

Driving up I-5 last week my coworker and I noticed a sign, and a light went on in my head. There are bears in California. Elk and deer, too, and jack rabbits the size of Rottweilers.

You hear it all over Northern California, especially here around the capital, "Bear Flag" this and "Bear Flag" that. Celebrations, businesses, brews, brands. In Yreka last week we learned how the U.S.A. almost got a 51st state, the State of Jefferson, made up of several Northern California and Southern Oregon counties that feel at odds with the economic and cultural and political interests of the rest of their respective states. The movement is still very much alive, at least in Siskiyou County, California.


There are other differences between North and South, and the big one is the one and only thing I was conscious of as a resident of the South: water. Specifically, its scarcity. In San Diego in the 90's you didn't flush the toilet unless it was... necessary. You didn't run the water while brushing your teeth. You didn't hose down the driveway or water the lawn daily, or waste water in any other way. Not to mention water was prohibitively expensive (and now I know why). But as someone in Yreka put it the other day, up here "we've got more water than we know what to do with." Which is why the State has been shipping it south since 1935.

The California State Water Project is as extensive as the American railroad system and as divisive as the Civil War. (I won't go into the politics now; that's another post entirely. But believe me, there's blood.) The SWP is comprised of 34 storage facilities, reservoirs and lakes, 20 pumping plants, 4 pumping-generating plants, 5 hydroelectric power plants, and over 700 miles of pipelines and open canals. It uses over 20% of the electricity consumed in the state. It supplies water to two-thirds of the residents of California from the Bay Area to the Mexican border, and irrigates 750,000 acres of farmland. In other words, it almost singlehandedly allowed the State of California to become the 7th largest economy in the world. It also provides recreation, water quality management, and flood control. Which brings me to the next thing that so fascinates me about what I consider "northern" California. (The people in Yreka think Northern California begins in Dunsmuir. They think of Redding as the South. Redding is 13 hours from San Diego.)

1928 saw the release of a Buster Keaton film called Steamboat Bill, Jr. You've seen a piece of this film whether you know it or not; the universally recognizable scene where the front facade of a house keels over on Keaton, who remains standing in the open window of the downed wall, scratching his head. Set in Mississippi, it was filmed on the Sacramento River, which, especially during the rainy season (November through April), could certainly pass for the Mississippi if you're only looking at one bank. And the romance of that movie river isn't just movie magic.

Like the Mississippi, the Sacramento River (joined near downtown by the American River) is a commercial conveyance, transporting goods down the delta to San Francisco. The grain towers near my corporate office in West Sacramento proudly say, "Port of Sacramento - Serving the Rice Industry." Having never lived near a large river before I'm amazed by the way people use rivers, and having never lived near a large river that runs into a major delta, I'm amazed by the way rivers shape people.

I remember flying in and out of Sacramento weekly a year ago and seeing from above the irrigated cropland, water standing in silver squares from the Sierra Nevada foothills to the sea. I remember a connecting flight in Portland that took me north over the rivers I would later come to know and bridge: the Feather, the Russian, the Eel, the American and Sacramento; and connecting flights in L.A. that took me over the delta, the Merced and San Joaquin.

I've had to learn a whole new language, living in this new California, in this wet place. It's the language of levees and rivers used, controlled, elevated, blocked, bled and rerouted: bypass and floodgate, dam, wetland, watershed, confluence, the language of raging watery nature barely contained. (Mom watched a History Channel show about degrading American infrastructure that featured a 15-minute segment on the Sacramento levees and how they're sure to fail if tested.)

But there's one thing I'll remember even long after I've moved on, when the North, this foggy, soggy green growing place, this wilderness, is nothing more than my history. That one thing is the side effect of powerful, unstoppable rivers combining, their evaporating ions wrangling the coastal barometer as they widen and writhe and slide into the San Francisco Bay (when we let them): the Delta Breeze. On baking, stifling Sacramento city nights, the oppressive stillness is often relieved by that wonder of wonders, referred to in tones of reverence and hope by everyone I met when I first arrived, before summer started in earnest. You can always count on the Delta Breeze.

But not on rivers.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Hearst Castle and Highway 101

My second workshop day in Morro Bay was finished by noon, so I had the afternoon to meander up the 101. I didn't really intend to stop at Hearst Castle, but when I saw it shimmering on the hill I had to pull off. It was everything promised by Mom and Kathleen, who went during their trip to Monterey. A marvel of architecture and art, it was worth every penny and the three-hour delay that put me in traffic just outside of Carmel later.

The facades reminded me so much of Balboa Park in San Diego -- and indeed, the architect modeled them after those buildings -- that I couldn't wait for my February trip down south.

Big Sur

Pacific sunset, Hwy 101 south of Carmel. Bring your A game on this drive or you could very easily die.


January meant another welcome trip to Morro Bay. It was unseasonably gorgeous.

I love colorful infrastructure. This irrigation backflow assembly prevents cross connections with the drinking water supply.

Sea Shanty, Cayucos.

Semi-operational power plant on Morro Bay.