Saturday, April 4, 2009
The muzak system is playing Smash Mouth: Somebody once asked could I spare some change for gas, I need to get myself away from this place... Sitting in the last corner booth after work today, next to the day-shift manager as he trains the newly promoted cover, Steve, in number-crunching paperwork. "Two to thaw, three to bake. Have them bag up four dozen, we go through a lot on weekend midnights." I twirl my fork, push spaghetti around my plate. I said, Yep, what a concept, I could use a little fuel myself, and we could all use a little change...
Across from me Steve bends over the pages and pages of prep lists and stock inventory, scribbling in numbers with the stub of a pencil. He's dressing up these days, classier than the polo shirt and eye-bleedingly red apron he used to wear like the rest of us servers; now, he's in black slacks and a button-up collared shirt and tie, also black. It's like he's trying to turn the restaurant into the Matrix. Would you like the red pill or the blue pill? Can I bring you fries with that? Steve's girlfriend is Pagan. They're both amazingly industiral-goth when not in uniform. Now he's crunching numbers as middle management in the food service industry. This is how life is sometimes.
The day-shift manager asks me to slide out for a second so he can go make a phone call in the office, and in a moment Steve and I are joined by another friend, Frank, who's snacking on some fries before his dinner shift begins. Frank is tall, with no waist, a neatly trimmed goatee and big clunky shoes; he always brings his uniform to work in a backpack stitched all over with anarchy symbols. Once when there was a bomb threat at the post office next door, he turned the bag inside out just in case the investigating police might get the wrong idea. When Frank is being funny, he purses his lips and blinks his eyes.
"Rob said he loves me like a rock," I tell Frank, to make conversation. "So I asked him if he meant that he really loves rocks, or that rocks have very strong emotions." Frank raises his eyebrows at me. "You know--if he loves me as though I were a rock, or if he loves me as though he were a rock... He told me to shut up."
"Maybe he meant the-way-in-which-he-loves-you is like a rock, you know, solid and durable... and slowly being worn down by the constant erosion of wind and water." Frank and I both giggle. Steve continues crunching numbers, chewing on his lip and ignoring us.
"See, I was just about to say, 'Yes, but that's not as funny,' but you proved me wrong." I twirl more spaghetti onto my fork. (This is the way my conversations at work go, hopping from one clever or ridiculous non sequitur to another, seeing what acrobatics of wit or syntactic contortions we can accomplish. So after a pause, I add:) "Stupid global warming."
Steve, in his all-black-cover-manager-threads-and-silk-tie, mutters without looking up at either of us, "Global warming isn't real."
For a moment, Frank and I don't say anything. I mumbled with my mouth full of pasta. "What?" Frank asks.
"I said, 'Well that's enlightened of you...'" Then, holding my hand up on the wrong side of my mouth, I say to Frank in a faux-whisper that Steve can hear perfectly well, "But I was being sarcastic."
"Global warming isn't real," Steve says again, this time stopping his scribbling and tapping the pencil stub on the table a few times. "It's just something the government made up to make money."
It's hard to read Frank's expression, his lips working into a purse but his eyes wide open. Still, I can't help but chime in (at risk of being the only person at the table with, you know, a functioning brain), "I don't know... making money by asking us to consume less; sounds kind of counterintuitive."
"I think," Frank says, blinking, "instead of addressing any real problems, they should just invest everything in some ridiculously pointless master plan. You know, like a Planet Umbrella," he adds, saving us all from having to muddle through a serious conversation.
I laugh. Steve goes back to his paperwork. Frank finishes his fries as the conversation moves on to other things.
What I Should Have Said
Now wait. Let's pretend I'm a slightly different person than I am, someone with more practice (or less civility) in confronting people about the fundamentally ignorant or frightfully misinformed statements they sometimes make in the course of casual conversation.
"Global warming isn't real," Steve says again, "It's just something the government made up to make money."
"Let me get this straight," this Other Ali would say. "You're telling me that our government, the government of the United States of America, invented an elaborate lie about global warming as early as the 1970s, then conspired to spread this lie all across the world, convincing scientists from every industrialized nation to 'independently verify' such a concept through hundreds of studies, all conducted independently. Then, when the rest of the world has completely fallen for this thoroughly convincing lie and everyone begins signing silly Kyoto Protocols and such nonsense, you know, cutting emissions, designing more energy-efficient vehicles, the U.S. government--the same government that supposedly conspired to tell this Lie of Global Warming in the first place--refuses to play along and instead decides to reject the whole idea, to reduce regulations and to encourage hugely wasteful and backwards industry models that only serve to put our manufacturing and technology industries far behind foreign competition. Despite this, our government persists, cleverly, in being very vocal in the fake denial of the lie they conspired to create and disseminate, and this goes on for decades and decades (meanwhile, the country's weathermen and meteorologists are in on it, too, reporting on the ever-increasing number of 'record-breaking heat waves' and extreme weather conditions all over the world). All of this, so that now, when even fellow American citizens have finally come to believe the lie the government has been telling them by way of everyone-except-the-government, they can make a little money off the fad of shopping for organic tomatoes and driving foreign-built hybrid cars. This is the story you want me to believe?
"I'm all one for conspiracy theories," this Other Ali would continue, "but I'm more inclined to wonder why the only 'scientific' studies that call global warming into question have been pursued and sponsored by corporate and government think-tanks. Or why it is only the American media that assume 'fair and balanced' means including misleading claims of the hypocritically-capitalist, irrationally anthropocentric Religious Right to balance out the bias of actual fact confirmed by countless peer-reviewed and respected scientific studies. Or why the CEOs of American car companies continue to spout global-warming-denial rhetoric and portray fuel-efficiency as merely a trendy innovation; the same rhetoric proffered by oil companies who make billions of dollars in profit when gas prices rise in response to national security threats and personal economic anxieties that the government helps to create and maintain with its fear-mongering and willful incompetence. Conspiracy? Sure thing. You're right there, Steve.
"Certainly, now that global warming has become so firmly established among the educated population of the world, now that its effects are becoming apparent even to the amateur observer with any long-term memory of what childhood winters used to be like--in short, now that the government and corporations of this country can no longer get away with complete and unadulterated denial... of course they're now trying to make money off of global warming, trying to reduce it to a trend, a brand, a marketing strategy. They're racing panicked around the deck of a sinking ship, dismantling it board by board and trying to sell the parts to us as life-preservers. Certainly they wouldn't want us to take anything too seriously, to question their priorities or actually maybe change the fundamental way we live our lives. Gods forbid we learn how to swim.
"And isn't your girlfriend Pagan? Isn't her best friend Pagan, too, and you're all housemates together? Even if you're right about everything, even if global warming is a Big Lie the government has told us, even if that's true--how do you reconcile consumption and waste with a love of the earth and the sacred celebration of its seasons? How can you ignore the very basics of ecology, the cycle of resources, the vast interconnected web of being? How do you turn yourself off to the singing of the trees choked by smog, the streams humming as they empty into oceans clogged with pollution and whole continents of plastic refuse set adrift by our recklessness? What lie could the government tell that could be worse than this, worse than the lie that we have the right to live as callously and selfishly as we like, to consume and squander and whine for more, ceaselessly and without consequence? And what is Paganism to you, if it has no room for the earth in it? Just a mishmash of misguided antiauthoritarianism and fashion accessories, the fringe-thrill of worshipping gods that make the WASPs and JWs squeam? And have you ever stopped and wondered, then, who exactly is making money off of your religion?
"Not to get on your case, Steve. We're all friends here."