More Signal, Less Noise

The Q train is stalled. It’s running on the N line and has dissolved 45 minutes of my life. This is an excellent metaphor for something, I’ll keep it in my pocket. It’s also a great opportunity to ruminate on the end of 2016.

Oh wait! We're moving. . . 50 feet... annnnnd ... stop. Fantastic.

I've seen and read many bits and blurbs about taking stock of life at year's end. They cover the landscape regarding resolutions, not making resolutions; how it's an arbitrary bullshit marker having no significance, how it's the most important symbolic new beginning we have; "new year-new me". Another trip around the sun. A time for the YMCA to refill their coffers. 

Personally, the end of December and the passing of another year marks the season for unfettered emotional masochism.

This is when I look at where I'm not. It's when I consider my failings driven by inaction, fear, complacency, and distraction. It’s a self-inflicted "airing of grievances", and pulling punches doesn’t come easily. Granted, this is all tucked up in my head. Externally, I try to keep up the cheer, but I think it leaves a number of those close to me befuddled when my resting bastard face seems a bit more strained as the ball drops. 

Strategies are built, course corrections are plotted and a general feeling of relief comes as I look toward the potential for the next 12 months with flickers of optimism. As with so many lofty goals though, they usually sputter with fits and starts, or fade as routine takes back the weeks. Like those epic travel plans you made with your friends after 7 hours of whiskey at that bar in Park Slope, fruition is dubious at best.

So for this coming year, I'm attempting something simpler; a mantra, an algorithm to apply holistically: More signal, less noise.

With friendships and the people I love.

In how I treat myself.

With what I consume from the world.

With what I read, listen to and watch.

In what I produce.

In the words I speak.

In what I stand for.

Okay, for sure, it is lofty, preachy, vague and probably derivative of a dozen different philosophies, but it’s what I’m gonna run with. And maybe, having spent an additional 45 minutes sequestered in transit, yet writing this, I’m off to a decent start.

Happy New Year!

Field notes from Trinity 10.01.16

I'm excited, call it Christmas-eve excited. I hastily down my breakfast burrito at the only 24 hour restaurant in Socorro, keeping one eye glued to my watch. I skip the 3rd cup of coffee.

Off interstate 25 and down into the valley towards White Sands Missile Range, the morning fog is gorgeous and almost impenetrable, veiling the remoteness of the place. Nearing the 12 mile mark I'd mentally calculated, a few cars appear, turning down the road towards Stallion gate. 

With the fog burned off, we all come to a stop. The guard station is in sight about a half mile down the road. Several dozen cars are ahead of me, and a swiftly growing number sprawl behind. Engines off, we wait, parked in place as the sun heats up. People gather roadside, chat, and crane their necks for the any indication of activity at the gate, signaling the start of this biannual open-house in the middle of nowhere. An enthusiastic man runs down the queue carrying a cardboard box clad with a trefoil hazmat sticker while calling out, "Everyone bring your Geiger counters?! Who wants some uranium ore?" On his slower return pass he concedes how heavy it is. Further down the road a couple of Mexican women and their children set up an ad hoc burrito stand (if only I'd known).

Around 8:20, engines start and we inch forward. One point I’ve forgotten until now surges anxiety up my throat: I wonder if anyone will care about New York drivers licenses not technically being Real-ID Act compliant. I'd accidentally left my back-up documentation in Brooklyn during my habitual last minute packing. A couple of cars are turned away at the gate. Okay, my turn. An anonymous security contractor in black sunglasses holds my ID, puts on a sufficient show of scrutiny, waves traffic forward and wishes me a nice day.

It takes another 20 minutes’ driving from the gate to the site, through similar arid terrain that characterizes much of central New Mexico, though heavily littered with explosive debris (as many signs warn). 

Pulling into the parking lot, cars are diverted into neatly arranged rows by a crew of airmen. The atmosphere is akin to a county fair. I pull what lenses I think I'll use, throw the bag on my shoulder and head towards the chain link corral that encircles the ground beneath where the first atomic detonation took place 71 years ago. Notably, there's no crater, just a few acres of flat ground, slightly depressed relative to the its surroundings. 

Along the walk to ground zero, the National Park Service, along with several experts (I believe from Los Alamos National Laboratory) have set up camp, answering questions and offering demonstrations. There’s a trailer selling t-shirts and souvenirs. 

A lava-rock obelisk serves as a historical marker at the hypocenter of the blast, and attracts a small photo-hungry crowd. Group shots, selfies, serious and not-so-serious. A man meanders around, geiger counter in hand. A few clicks here and there, nothing really note-worthy. I find myself with everyone else, staring at the ground hunting for trinitite like lost change. Similar to catch and release fishing… you find it, pick it up, marvel at it and throw it back. I assume the warnings about jail time if you remove any of the radioactive glass from the site are serious, though I'm sure a few pieces will make their way into more daring pockets. 

I walk around the sequestered piece of desert for 2 hours, occasionally strike up conversations, point out decent caches of green glass, look through the historic photos posted on the far fence, and listen to different bits of technical info from the staff. I’m estimating the likelihood of a few stray plutonium atoms hitching a ride on my shoes.

 

Beneath the nerdish joy, there’s something else.

 

The casualness feels off. I love the curiosity and glee of the armchair scientist crowd (in which I consider myself). I love the history buffs, the researchers who've been in the field for decades sharing their knowledge, the RV tourists who happen to be driving through and want to check a landmark off their list. Indulging the interest, whatever the motivation isn’t the problem, but I feel a lack of expression of the complexity of what happened here. This experiment helped set in motion the death of tens of thousands in the weeks following, by some estimates over 200,000 between Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not to mention cumulative residual effects. However you look at the justification for using the Bomb on Japan, it's a staggering loss of human life, executed in an instant. It set us down an expensive, toxic, absurd and existentially threatening path in the decades to follow, one that's, at best, been in a delicate remission since. On significant anniversaries of the test there’s more public ceremony which speaks to this, but today the novelty of the site is center stage: holy shit, look at this radioactive glass! Standing here has me feeling increasingly solemn and awestruck in a way I haven’t anticipated.

In 2009 I visited another nuclear test site called Project Faultless in central Nevada. It was an underground detonation, fired 23 years after Trinity, designed to determine the geologic stability of the region and its potential for expanded weapons testing. Faultless, with some irony, unexpectedly sank and fractured the ground for miles, halting other planned explosions and shelving the entire idea. What remains is a section of the drill-hole liner and a plaque with information about the test and a warning about excavation. No fences, no officiating, the land is public. That field trip was more of an oddball adventure and didn't feel the need for moral contemplation. People vaporizing didn’t cross my mind, I was fascinated by the upheaval and collapse of the valley floor, the reactor-like radiation levels thousands of feet below and the expensive technical folly of the government. The ground in central Nevada didn’t feel like a proxy gravesite, it didn’t have the connection that Trinity does.

The Christmas-eve glow is dimmed. Instead of looking at bubbles in the trinitite and imagining sand being swept into the fireball and rained down as molten glass, I'm imagining myself in its place along with everyone here for that matter... and wonder if anyone around me is having the same quiet and dreadful thought. 

I lift my phone out at arms length, shoot the selfie, and wander out to the rental car. Driving back through Stallion gate and on to the county highway, a small group of advocates, downwinders and cancer victims has clustered at the intersection, protesting in front of a film crew. Directly across the road is a handmade sign posted: Trinitite for sale, 17 miles.

all content © Justin N. Lane 2016

The Trinity Site is open to visitors on the first Saturdays of October and April. 

 

An essay discussing one woman's experience in front of the camera, in particular, my camera...

 

In April, Alicia Morgan wrote an essay about body image and her personal experiences for Refinery29. She talks extensively about a shoot we'd done a few years back. I get a little awkward about these things, but appreciate her candor tremendously. Give it a read, maybe not while you're at work...

http://www.refinery29.com/nude-photos-body-image

 

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Anticipating New Mexico

I'm a kid of weird dreams. The fascination surrounding all things radioactive has been a part of me since I learned to form a sentence. From cosmic radiation dose rates on long-haul flights, to radioactive tchotchkes (yes, I have a tritium keychain), the legacy of nuclear weaponry, environmental impact of disasters, and the looming problems of storing spent fuel... all are fodder for late night research, project planning and occasional trips that leave some friends scratching their heads.

The bucket list is about to get a check mark as White Sands unlocks its gates for the biannual Trinity Site open house on October 1st. All ethical, political and environmental issues aside, the history behind the event that brought about the nuclear age is astonishing, and the thought of standing on the spot where the first man-made nuclear detonation occurred feels like 10 cups of coffee, all at once.