Spring Break has taken a strange and gloomy turn this year. Already our plans lacked that shimmering promise spring vacation can hold; we weren't going anywhere, and Patrick had to work. But then as though to ensure we wouldn't even leave the house, a colossal storm enclosed the Bay Area in eerily prolonged rainfall. It began well before the vacation, and by now water has fallen from the sky for a solid month. It rained on Cleo's birthday. It rained the day of Zoë's Hula Party. The next day it poured. It's still pouring.
"Jesus," I blaspheme on the umpteenth day of rain, as I crush garlic for chicken soup, "if it isn't Mad Cow Disease it's mad cow gas!" I tend to curse under my breath while listening to National Public Radio. This behavior has spurred some great conversations with nine-year-old Zoë, who reads at the kitchen table as I cook.
She grins up at me. "Mom! You should watch your language around me."
"I know -- sorry."
"What did they say?"
"They said all the cows we raise for our beloved beef burp up enough methane gas to increase global warming. That's bad."
"Why? What's that?"
"Methane pollutes; it makes the layer of gases around the earth thicker. That heats up the world, and causes floods and hurricanes and melting ice caps -- all kinds of scary things." I glance out at the swamp that was once my garden.
"You mean cows make pollution just like CO2 from cars?"
"Hey -- that's good. Where did you learn about CO2 from cars?" She knows so much that I haven't taught her. But she ignores my question.
"So the cow burps and the CO2 together make it too hot?"
"Actually, methane breaks down into CO2, and water, and other stuff. And it's good to have some CO2 and water in the atmosphere -- it traps warmth next to the Earth, which keeps us alive. But add in our pollution and the blanket of gases gets too thick. Earth gets too warm. That's scary. A lot of countries have signed a pact to work on this, but unfortunately not ours."
"Well, Sweetie, our leaders are ignoring what matters most."
I sound like my mom. Ma was horrified by our government's environmental policies. After she died of Alzheimer's, I found a folder containing a series of journal entries. "I want to write about my life," said one, "but I can't remember anything." Yet in the same folder I found dozens of articulate, heartfelt letters to her representatives on every possible environmental issue, painstakingly copied in longhand. Even as dementia set in, Ma fought so hard to save us all.
"Mom," Zoë asks, "is the atmosphere the same thing as the ozone layer?"
"Oh, no, that's a whole other thing."
So I launch into the distinction between the greenhouse effect and the ozone layer. The atmospheric layer closest to earth keeps heat in, as in a greenhouse, but too much CO2 makes it too thick, and us too warm. The Ozone Layer is higher up, and contains ozone molecules (O3), which keep the bad rays of the sun out, protecting us.
"And this chemical we make called a 'CFC' eats up ozone, making that layer too thin," I say.
Zoë's eyes are not glazed, so I push on.
"CFC stands for 'chlorofluorocarbon.' If we keep using CFCs, the ozone layer gets holes, and we get sunburns and skin cancer. That's already happening."
She nods. "Like your face."
I blush. I had three precancerous spots removed last month. "Yeah, like my face. But the good news is, many countries have stopped using CFC's." I pause. "You got all that?"
She shrugs. "I think so."
The next morning, sunlight crashes in, blinding us. We writhe like creatures from under an overturned rock before jumping up to head for the park. The girls dress, I load bikes into our 16-year-old Accord, 5-year-old Cleo goes potty, and we're set to go... but the car refuses to start. By the time we have moved to the 20-year-old Civic, they're hungry. And as we break out the peanut butter sandwiches I packed nearly an hour earlier, the clouds close in and rain slants down. So we head downtown to shop for umbrellas.
Let me be clear about the rain: I love the rain. I love the sound of it pelting my parka and dripping down drainpipes, the patterns it makes streaming down the window on a dark afternoon as we read in bed. Now, despite the kids' disappointment, I still relish the clatter on the car roof after I cut off the engine -- but my pleasure ripples with an undercurrent of anxiety. This is unprecedented rain in a region known for drought; this is another record-breaker; this is what they talk about every week in the journals Science and Nature these days, in those articles I'm too chicken to read: climate change.
Arguably, my short lifetime may not be a representative sample; this fluctuation could average out over centuries. But with larger hurricanes arriving more frequently, European heat waves killing more people every year, and polar bears drowning because so much pack ice has melted that they can't swim to the next ice floe, I know, we all know: this is aberrant, meaningful, important. This rain is about my girls' future.
After three sold-out stores, we find umbrellas, and then wander pathetically. We're Californians; without the park, the pool, the beach, the woods, we're at a loss... until we find a theater. And wouldn't you know it, the one kids' movie playing is Ice Age 2.
I never saw Ice Age 1, but the very premise of Ice Age 2 sends a shiver up my spine. Ostensibly a movie about prehistory, it's really about... you guessed it, global warming. The melting of glaciers (presumably the start of an interglacial period) causes a flood of biblical proportion. All the animals, including an adorable wooly mammoth and his loyal saber-toothed lion friend, must escape the valley or drown.
Sitting in the theater with my girls, with the hauntingly persistent rain pouring down outside, I grip my illegal outside coffee cup in horror as 20th Century Fox makes light of one of the most frightening phenomena of modern life. Cleo reaches for my hand when spiky fish monsters pop up between icebergs, gnashing teeth at our heroes, but I need her hand or Zoë's throughout the movie. What does this mean, I keep wondering. Are the movie's creators trying to frighten a generation of environmental activists into action, or to soothe kids into submission? Climatologists studying current trends predict floods, drought, tropical disease, rising seas, and catastrophic storms. Well, they've got the flood part. But do they really think there will be a boat we'll all escape onto at the end of the valley?
After the movie, I ask Zoë what she thought.
"I loved it!" she says, and does cartwheels across the theater lobby.
I don't want to be a killjoy, but I can't help myself. "It didn't worry you?" I ask.
I will definitely help her connect the dots in another kitchen conversation. Meanwhile, I'm going to replace that dead car with a hybrid.
Sybil Lockhart is currently at work on her book, Early Stages: a Biologist's Tale of Mothering and Daughtering, a scientific memoir rooted in the stories told here. In addition to her roles as founding member, reviews editor and columnist at Literary Mama, Sybil is a compulsive journal-writer with a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology. She has taught high school French and English, done research in developmental neurobiology, and taught neuroscience at U.C. Berkeley. Her recent essays can be found in Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined and Using Our Words: Moms and Dads on Raising Kids in the Modern Neighborhood, and her writing has also appeared in Brandeis University's Artemis Magazine, The Journal of Neuroscience, and The Journal of Neurobiology. One of her children's nature stories is forthcoming in Ladybug Magazine, and her essay "Naked" was chosen for the forthcoming Alzheimer's Anthology, Beyond Forgetting. Sybil lives in Berkeley, California with her husband and two daughters.