Personal Narrative

Not by Fire, but by Ice – thinking through the politics of now

CATEGORY: PersonalNarrativeIce is the Rodney Dangerfield of basic elements. It gets no respect.   “Is there a Greek god of ice?” someone posted on The answer came back, “Are you kidding me? Have you been to Greece? Why would they have an ice god?” It’s easy to understand why Greece might not have an ice god, but not as easy to understand why almost no cultures have them.

There are gods of earth, wind and fire in most religions. But not ice. The Norse do have Ymir[i], a six-legged ice ogre whose legs mate with each other to produce offspring, and who later gets torn apart and his bits used to make our world. But that’s about it. 

 The truth is earth, wind and fire are only good for small scale mayhem like earthquakes, tornadoes, forest fires and bad albums. For real, serious destruction—rerouting rivers and gouging out valleys, breaking down mountains and pushing up new ones, scraping plains flat, you need ice.  Given enough time, ice will not stop until every mountain and every rock has been reduced to dust.

Perhaps it is because wind, fire and earthquakes wreak their havoc on a more-comprehensible human scale (although ice can do a pretty good job on a human scale as well, just ask those on the Titanic.) People fear wind, fire and earth. They run to the grocery store and stock up on batteries when they know a hurricane is coming, race into the streets and fall on the ground during an earthquake, and dive into cellars for tornadoes. Those same people sit home and make cocoa when the weatherman predicts an ice storm. Sheesh, some people even look forward to ice storms, because they’re “pretty.”

No respect, no respect.

St. Louis, Thanksgiving, 1976

The strawberry-haired girl and I met in Peace Corps.  We fell into mad love at a diamond dealer’s party in Kono in Sierra Leone, later made famous in the movie Blood Diamonds. Laughing, feral young Lebanese men wandered through the walled courtyard puffing cigarettes, their armed African bodyguards trailing behind them like shadows. The girl and I spent the night in a corner of a gazebo talking and woke up the next morning in the nursery of the host’s home lying in a crib. I remember that first night together as wonderful and extremely uncomfortable, which pretty much sums up our entire relationship.

I returned to the States first. She joined me in 1976, and we began the process of auditioning me with her family. Of course back then I was even more socially clueless than I am now, and I had no idea how important the process was.  I thought love was enough. Oh my.

She knew exactly what we were up against.  I was certainly interesting, in a loud, macho, profane, crude and profoundly socially-unacceptable way, and I clearly had potential. But she knew I would be a hard sell to her quiet, mid-western family. If she’d brought home a dignified Muslim African schoolteacher, they wouldn’t have blinked an eye. But an impoverished white trash college dropout from South Georgia? That was cause for serious heartburn.

 She wisely decided that we needed to have a dress rehearsal in a smaller venue before opening on Broadway, Broadway in this case being Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin for Christmas. On Thanksgiving we borrowed my brother’s truck, a long bed Chevy Silverado, and drove from Louisiana to her cousin’s house in St. Louis for our first test.

It went well. They were kind, gracious and accepting people, and we had a pleasant enough holiday. It was an easy audition, but I passed it. It didn’t mean much, sort of like getting a standing ovation in Peoria, but still, it was something.

We rose on Friday satisfied and ready to get home. Our hosts tried to talk us out of it, because we’d had an overnight ice storm. St. Louis is in the ice belt that runs from down to Atlanta, where winter storms drop not snow or sleet but ice. But I was from Waycross, Georgia. I’d only seen snow two or three times in my life and never seen ice outside of a glass of tea, so I lacked any respect at all.

This day it was a challenge even to make it out to the truck and chip the doors open.  As we loaded the truck, I looked around and marveled at the ice coating everything in sight, every tree and shrub. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. I loaded the truck and we pulled out of their driveway at the top of a lengthy hill.

Long-bed pick-ups are not particularly grippy on a good day. I took off too fast and we made it as far as the first stop sign, where I applied the brakes and instead of slowing down, we went into a spin and sailed gracefully right through the stop. We spun slowly down a long hill, parked cars coming into and out of our vision, other drivers stopped at side streets and staring at us open-mouthed as we gently floated by, a ton of steel completely out of control, floating down a steep frictionless street. Finally, we reached the bottom and like a whisper touched up against the curb and stopped. We looked back up the street at the dozens of cars we’d missed, not a scratch, and then at each other and laughed. We were young and in love, and the world could not touch us, we thought.

But just because you miss all the cars one day doesn’t mean you will miss any the next, as we found out in Prairie du Chien.

***      ***      ***

Even the New York Times, which has an answer for everything, thinks that ice is a “very mysterious solid.[ii]” For example, no one really knows why ice is slippery. To be very precise, no one knows why the ice we know is slippery. There actually are a dozen or so different types of ice, some of which have crystalline structures like our and some of which don’t, some of which only exist in cold and some of which could theoretically exist in rocks heated to thousands of degrees.

The problem is liquids are slippery but solids like ice are generally not. If a basketball player runs as hard as he can and tries to slide across a basketball court, he will stop dead.  But if someone pours a cup of water on that same court, the running basketball player will slide easily and probably fly across into the seats. That’s why kids with towels run out to wipe up the sweat whenever a player falls to the court, because a basketball court with water on it is as slippery as, well, ice.

Scientists have been working on the slippery ice problem at least since Michael Faraday, likely the greatest scientist of all time, experimented with ice cubes in 1850. The theory used to be pressure. The example in the textbooks was an ice skate. The idea was that the pressure of an ice skate was so intense that it melted a tiny bead of water under the front of the skate, which then refroze behind the skate as it passed. Simply put, an ice skater was thought to be sliding on a tiny line of slippery water on top of un-slippery ice.

Hmmmm. The problem is: Ice is slippery to things that don’t generate very much pressure at all.  For example, it’s very hard to walk across an ice rink in street shoes, even for a person that doesn’t weigh much and thus creates little pressure.

Another theory developed. It too was a variation on the water-on-top-of-the-ice idea. This time the idea was that it wasn’t pressure but friction that melted the top of the ice to form a small layer of water. The problem with that theory is that ice is slippery when a person is standing perfectly still on it, not generating any friction at all.

So a third theory emerged. This one says that the outside of ice isn’t really frozen at all, that there’s an impossibly small film of water on the outside, even at absurdly low temperatures. But most scientists don’t buy that one either.

In other words, we just don’t know much about ice.  We don’t even know why it’s slippery, even though experiments with Chevy trucks on steep streets in St. Louis have confirmed that it is, whether scientists think it should be or not.

* * *

From US News & World Report:[iii]

Spending on entitlements is the highest in American history. In 2010, entitlement spending had grown to be almost 100 times higher than it was in 1960; it has increased by an explosive 9.5 percent per year for 50 straight years. Entitlement transfer payments to individuals (such as for income, healthcare, age, and unemployment) have been growing twice as fast as per capita income for 20 years, totaling $2.2 trillion in 2010 alone—which was greater than the entire gross domestic product of Italy and roughly the same as the GDP of Great Britain.

In 1960, entitlement spending accounted for less than a third of all federal spending; in 2010, it was just about two thirds of government outlays, with everything else—defense, justice, all the other duties of government—making up less than one third. Over the last half-century, income-related assistance (which we used to call “welfare”) multiplied more than thirtyfold after adjusting for inflation. The most shocking growth has been in Medicare and Medicaid. In the early 1960s, neither program existed; by 2010, these two programs cost more than $900 billion a year.

More Americans rely on government handouts than ever before….According to the Census Bureau, only 30 percent of American households in the 1980s relied on any public assistance.

Winterville, Georgia, January, 1980

After the strawberry-haired girl and I split up, I met a lovely blonde girl, fell even madder in love, and we married. We lived in an old farmhouse owned by Billy. Nominally, we were supposed to pay Billy $25 a month in rent, but he was a nice man and rarely remembered to collect it. He said he was happy enough to have the place occupied. Empty, the house might have been vandalized and he would not have been able to get fire insurance on it. The truth is he knew that even $25 was a load for us in those days.

The house had been built in the early part of last century, and stood on top of a hill high above the ground, perched up on cinder blocks and stones. We heated with a woodstove. There was a bathroom attached to the house, but we couldn’t use it because there was no septic tank. Presumably at one point there had been a pipe which emptied out into the field but people don’t do that stuff anymore. So we used an outhouse. And anyway, the bathroom was just tacked on to the farmhouse and built of cheap lumber. As a result half the floor was rotten and wind whistled in through gaps around the window.

The house did have running water. At least there was running water three quarters of the year, because every winter the pipes froze. For two months each year we had to take our showers at the University gym and tote water back out to the house in five gallon containers.

I tried everything to stop the pipes from freezing.  I insulated the pump house. I nailed tin around the foundation of the house to block the cold wind. I exchanged the copper piping for plastic, which froze and broke, too.  The second year I even purchased a long strand of heat tape, which we couldn’t afford, and crawled around under the house methodically wrapping every pipe. No matter, come the first freeze every year, the pipes froze solid and split.

When the blonde-haired woman became pregnant (surprise!), Billy’s wife ordered him to put in a septic tank and rebuild the bathroom. Billy was a little pissed about this. Who could blame him? Now he had to put money into a house he wasn’t even getting rent for. Still, he hired someone to dig a septic tank, and after extracting my promise to help, showed up one day with a truckload of lumber, wiring and plumbing supplies. He and I started tearing off the old bathroom so we could build the new one.

Billy was a farmer. He was in his late forties, far too heavy, and may have finished high school or not. He looked at us with a mixture of fondness and disdain, fondness because we were nice enough young people, disdain because he wasn’t quite sold on this whole education thing. He teased me about it. It was gentle, but he made it pretty clear that he thought “college boy” was a synonym for “soft.” That’s okay. I thought “forty” was a synonym for “old.”

We started work early. Billy arrived in a pissy mood.  We worked silently. At mid-morning we were brought snacks and coffee.

“You want to take a break?” Billy snapped.

“Nah, I’m good,” I said, gulping the coffee and chewing while I worked.

That escalated it. Soon we were competing to see who could work fastest and hardest. We ate lunch with sandwiches in one hand and sledgehammers in the other. We ran from the truck to the site with lumber and cinder blocks. We tore down old walls with pry bars and losing our patience, ripped at them with our bare hands. We ripped, mixed, dug, slammed, hammered, nailed and drilled at hyper-speed, not pausing between tasks, working like madmen toward some non-existent deadline.

Finally, about four o’clock, Billy looked up. “Hey, fella, you work like this all the time?” he gasped.  He was panting, his face was red, and sweat ran down the side of his face in rivulets.

I stopped working and looked back, panting myself, “No, man, I’ve never worked this hard in my life.”

He nodded. “Me neither. You reckon we could slow it down a little bit tomorrow?”

Billy and I were fine from then on. The next day we worked and joked our way through as we framed walls, ran wire and applied siding. Later, Billy told the story widely enough that we became accepted in the local community. Before long I couldn’t drive to town without getting a wave from every pick-up I passed.

The bathroom was beautiful, and the toilet flushed. Nor did the pipes freeze. We used a new type of pipe, soft gray plastic, that expanded and contracted. Or rather, the pipes continued to freeze but they never broke, and we would only be out of water for a day or two at a time while they thawed. That plastic was later pulled from the market because it turned out to be carcinogenic. I’m not sure if I’d known if I would have cared. When you’re young, cancer isn’t as real as a hot shower.

* * *

Ice expands as it freezes[iv].  A container of water, when frozen, will take up 8% more space than water, which is why the ice cubes in a tray are always bulging at the top. The liquid in the tray has expanded as it turned into a solid.  The expansion is the result of the crystalline structure of ice. As a liquid, water is just a jumble of hydrogen-oxygen molecules, the molecular equivalent of a sock drawer, molecules all crammed together. But as it freezes, it takes on a beautiful hexagonal crystalline structure. Every molecule is neatly stacked and spaced exactly the same distance from every other molecule. They spread out.

It is this expansion property that is responsible for much of the impact ice has on the environment. The simplest example of course is splitting a rock. One year, a little water seeps into a tiny crack, freezes and widens the crack the tiniest amount, perhaps a thousandth of an inch. It thaws and evaporates in the spring. Then next year more water seeps in and freezes. This is repeated over thousands of years, a long time to be sure, but then ice is patient. It has nowhere it has be. Eventually the rock splits. Water seeps into the new cracks that have formed on the fresh face of rock and the process starts again.

In Yosemite, it is ice that has seeped down inside cracks of giant boulders, frozen and pushed outward, leaving giant rocks split into two neat halves like a tangerine prepared for a preschooler. Let’s see wind do that. Or fire.

* * *

From Vanity Fair[v]:

During a lengthy discussion, the senior GOP members worked out a plan to repeatedly block Obama over the coming four years to try to ensure he would not be re-elected…..

The 15 Republicans were in a sombre mood as they gathered at the Caucus Room in Washington, an upscale restaurant where a New York strip steak costs $51…..

The dinner table was set in a square at Luntz’s request so everyone could see one another and talk freely. The session lasted four hours and by the end the sombre mood had lifted: they had conceived a plan. They would take back the House in November 2010, which they did, and use it as a spear to mortally wound Obama in 2011 and take back the Senate and White House in 2012, Draper writes.

“If you act like you’re the minority, you’re going to stay in the minority,” said Keven McCarthy, quoted by Draper. “We’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.”

The Republicans have done that, bringing Washington to a near standstill several times during Obama’s first term over debt and other issues.

Kankakee, Illinois, March, 1983

Jobs were hard to come by in 1981. The blonde woman, our daughter and I moved to Kankakee, Illinois, a little ghetto-in-a-cornfield an hour south of Chicago, where I worked as an engineer in a dog food plant.

The first two years we were there were two of the coldest on record. Both years, the temperature dropped to -27 degrees. Mountains of snow fell and built up on country roads until they were far higher than the top of the car. People on white roads through white tunnels. At every stop sign it was necessary to slow to a crawl and creep out into the blind intersection. I-57, the interstate between Kankakee and Chicago, is elevated and freezes easily. One of those years it was covered with a two inch thick coat of ice. News helicopters flew overhead, showing literally hundreds of vehicles scattered in the center and the ditches alongside the road. It was so cold a state trooper was blinded as his eyes froze while he worked through the night rescuing motorists.

We lived on the Kankakee River, which froze solid both years. In the spring when it thawed, we walked down to the riverbank to watch as the huge sheet of ice began to break up. Giant ice flows from upriver piled up behind the sheet and pushed, accelerating the break-up. Each floe was the size of a large living room and a foot or two thick. They jostled their way down the river, creaking and groaning. We stood right on the edge and watched.

Suddenly, I heard someone yell. I turned to see our crusty old neighbor, an avid boater and lifelong resident, frantically waving us back. We walked back up in the yard. He scrambled down his steps to explain that the ice was unpredictable and could come up onto the shore. At that moment, two of the floes rammed together and sent a third flying five or so feet up into the air.  It was as if the river had decided to play jacks with chunks of ice the size of pick-up trips. We watched as the massive piece of ice crashed down on top of other floes and slid along, a jagged multi-ton missile. For weeks the ice broke and piled up on the banks in massive pieces, until our riverbank looked like a barricade from the Days of Rage.

* * *

Ice and water have an uneasy relationship. It’s a good question for high school physics exams. “The freezing point of water is 32 degrees Fahrenheit at standard atmospheric pressure. If a bucket filled half with ice and half with water is put outside in exactly 32 degree weather, how long will it take to freeze?” Ha! It’s a trick question. The answer is it will never freeze, because water is stable at 32 degrees and so is ice. Nor will it thaw. As long as it stays exactly 32 degrees and exactly one atmosphere of pressure, the water will stay water and the ice will stay ice forever.

Except of course it’s impossible for anything to stay the same.  If the temperature increases just a fraction of a degree, say 0.000000001 (it doesn’t matter–add as many zeroes as you like,) the ice will start to thaw, or if it decreases by that amount the ice will begin to freeze. Or if a weather front moves through, that will upset the equilibrium. If it’s a high pressure system, the ice will start to freeze. A low pressure system will cause it to thaw, even if the temperature stays exactly 32 degrees.

One constant of the ice-water relationship is that since a pound of ice takes up 8% less space than a pound of water, ice floats. Those ice floes on the river will never sink. They will always be on top of the water. And that’s a darn good thing, because if ice sank then ponds and rivers and lakes and oceans would freeze from the bottom up, and since sunlight would never penetrate deep enough to thaw them completely even in the hottest summer, over time every body of water on the earth would freeze as solid as the pipes under our kitchen in Winterville, and that would be it for life on the planet.

The ice that floats on lakes is usually white, due to ice bubbles. Ice in its natural state is blue. That’s because ice, like everything else, wants to hold onto warmth. In this case light absorbs the relatively warm red portion of the light spectrum and spits out the blue. However, it’s a very, very, very light blue, and in thin layers ice is invisible. Invisible ice on a roadway is often called black ice, even though it’s not black at all. Anyone who has climbed out of a Hertz rental car into a poorly lit parking garage at the Eden Prairie, Minnesota Marriott in January, and felt his leather-bottomed shoes slide right out from under him and found himself completely horizontal in the air and headed earthward like a cartoon coyote can attest to that.

* * *

From Salon[vi]:

Somewhere on this planet an American commando is carrying out a mission. Now, say that 70 times and you’re done… for the day. Without the knowledge of the American public, a secret force within the U.S. military is undertaking operations in a majority of the world’s countries. This new Pentagon power elite is waging a global war whose size and scope has never been revealed, until now….

Last year, Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post reported that U.S. Special Operations forces were deployed in 75 countries, up from 60 at the end of the Bush presidency. By the end of this year, U.S. Special Operations Command spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told me, that number will likely reach 120. “We do a lot of traveling — a lot more than Afghanistan or Iraq,” he said recently. This global presence — in about 60 percent of the world’s nations and far larger than previously acknowledged — provides striking new evidence of a rising clandestine Pentagon power elite waging a secret war in all corners of the world.

* * *

Ice destroys. It destroys by slipping and sliding, by freezing and thawing, by swelling and crushing. It destroys rocks, relationships, and the things we build, at whatever scale we build them. It destroys in front of our eyes, and in invisible and slow ways we don’t even see.

The strawberry girl and I didn’t last. We survived the heat and wind of our passion, but we slipped and crashed on the ice. She got her doctorate in economics and now teaches at a small school in the northeast, where she lives with her partner of 30 years. 

The blonde girl and I did last. Thirty five years, two children, one grandchild, four dogs, seven cats, eighteen countries and fifteen houses and apartments later, it looks like we might make it. But you never know. That’s the way ice is. We have avoided the slippery stuff and the crashing ice floes of middle age, although not without effort. But that doesn’t mean that right now, even as I write this, that somewhere down in a tiny crevice, ice crystals aren’t forming.

Of course, that is the human scale, and as we have said, ice works on a grander scale than that. One of the climate change denialists has published a book titled, “Not by Fire but by Ice” that suggests the real threat is from global cooling. Great idea for a title, foolish idea for a book. A book with that title should be about politics in America, where we spend a great deal of time fretting over the fire and wind of political discourse. But the real threat to the way we live will come from ice.  

How will it come? Perhaps it will be slipperiness that gets us. Perhaps we will slide over a fiscal cliff over entitlements and become Portugal or Italy, once great nations and now quaint tourist destinations.

Or will the pressure becomes too much, and like the ice on the river, will we simply break apart into huge jagged fragments, like Rome and Russia? For that is how empires often end, crushed under the weight of trying to fight too many wars in too many places.

Or will our ice threat come from internal pressure, and will we split like frozen water pipes? Will the tiny seep of distrust build and build until we are so far apart that it is impossible to bring us back together? Each year, with each generation of politicians, the fissure seems to grow a little wider. A tiny crack under Nixon, wider under Reagan, wider under Clinton, wider still under Bush V2.0, and now fist-sized under Obama. Is that the ice that will challenge us?

Ice is mysterious stuff indeed.

[i] Gill, N.S. “Creation of the World—Norse Mythology…”, accessed January 24, 2013.

[ii] “Explaining Ice: The Answer is Slippery,” New York Times, February 21, 2006.

[iii] Cary, Mary Kate. “The Shocking Truth about Entitlements,” USN&WR, December 19, 2012.

[v] Wolcott, James. “The Conspiracy to Commit Legislative Constipation,” Vanity Fair, January 24, 2013.

[vi] Turse, Nick. “How many secret wars are we fighting?”, August 4, 2011.

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