Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Kim Jong-il: The Burning Hammer

Note: unlike many guest pieces on Et tu, Mr. Destructo? today's article comes from a real, live person: Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, Supreme Leader of North Korea and General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea, who evades foreign intelligence agencies by pretending to work the finance beat for the press in another Asian country. He last appeared to debunk entertaining myths about the DPRK employed by journalists who are much lazier than he is. He joins us to talk about the aftermath of the recent Japanese earthquake.

Plate Tectonics, Radiation Join in Glorious Struggle to Destroy U.S. Lapdog

This may be the closest thing to living with ghosts.

Reality has shifted, and it's no longer a shock to hear creaks or groans in the walls or to have some poltergeist open doors and knock over pictures. The surprise is gone, but the mystery and unease continues. What motivates these spirits? When will they jolt into action again, and will they be violent?

This is life in Japan after March 11, when an unseen force ripped open the earth, pushing the entire country westward about nine feet, knocking the planet three inches off its axis and shortening days by 1.8 microseconds. As life returns to normal in Tokyo, there's the sense that it's going to be a different kind of normal.

Tremors that would have been unsettling before are becoming routine. Beneath that, there are countless little quakes. They seem to keep the modern skyscrapers where we live and work — all built on on springs and shock absorbers — in constant motion, like a basketball kept twirling on the finger of a Harlem Globetrotter with the occasional flick of his hand.

It's engendered a hyper-sensitivity in myself and everyone I talk to, and along with that a creeping sense of self doubt. Was that a quake, you think to yourself. Or just a leg spasm from too much coffee? Or a generator kicking in at the floor below? Real or imagined, the effect accumulates into a sort of permanent dizziness. After a while you get tired of conversations like this:

"Hey did you feel that one yesterday?"
"What? The 6.2 in Chiba around 10 a.m.?"
"Shit, there was one in the morning? No, I meant the biggy around 11:30 in the evening."

Which prompts the conundrum of how we distinguish these events. I favor nicknames, like we do for hurricanes. My nominations are:

The Burning Hammer — The big one on March 11. Also the name of a pro wrestling maneuver where the victim is held on the aggressor's shoulders before driven into the mat, face-first. Also because there was a lot of fire.

The Donkey Punch — The 7.9 magnitude aftershock that came less than an hour later. That one had a strangely vertical jolt to it, almost like Gaia herself was trying to cornhole me in my chair with a 36-story strap-on.

The Midnight Paycheck — The 7.1 on April 7 that seemed to be whispering "Remember me?" in my ear as the bed gyrated beneath me.

Everyone has a story about where they were during The Burning Hammer. As long as I'm babbling, I'll tell my own. I had been out paying my taxes (you can do this at the post office in Japan) and was returning to the office, looking forward to a coasting through a couple more hours until BEER:30 p.m.

About halfway up the 30-second elevator journey to my company's front office, the car started to sway. I looked over at the only other occupant, another non-Japanese dude.

"Pretty rough elevator," I said to the stranger, to which he assented. And then as the cavitation became stronger, I realized what it was. I got instant confirmation from an interior light that declared an emergency stop was imminent. The doors parted and I found myself at an unfamiliar floor, and out the window I could see the twin tower to our own swaying noticeably. I tried to text my co-workers my location, taking stutter steps left and right to steady myself as I tapped into the iPhone.

As it started to die down, I realized that the floor was the bottom one occupied by my company, used mostly for deliveries and loading. I held my RFID badge to several doors until one of them clicked and opened.

I yelled to the other foreign guy to follow me (cue interior monologue in Terminator voice: "Com wit me eef you vant to live"), and I held up my ID as some sort of Schindler's Badge, allowing me access past the security guards who blocked the path of non-company folk who'd been similarly stranded. I ran up three flights of stairs toward my desk, seeing most of my comrades already donning the hardhats that come in orange kit bags stashed under our desks.

And then what? I just worked. But also watched and marveled at what was happening. Through the nearest window smoke could be seen rising from the west. Oddly, my first thought was, "Tokyo Disneyland is on fire. Fuck that mouse!" but it was too far out for that.

It was the Cosmo oil refinery — that I later learned was about 40 kilometers away — and its eventual explosion was so massive, it dwarfed skyscrapers just blocks away in my field of vision. I wondered to myself: if this is what's going on out of this one window, what the hell is happening on the three other sides of this building? We watched live footage on flat screens suspended from the ceiling, footage from an NHK helicopter as a tsunami — carrying another burning factory on its back — devoured the countryside.

Folks could be seen standing on bridges and on the flatbeds of trucks as the waters and wreckage approached. They didn't have the helicopter's perspective, that the tsunami was coming in from all sides and still with a lot of momentum. I impotently mouthed the word "run."

A lot of the people that fled the country last month are returning now, and there's some lingering friction with those who stayed. The running joke is whether you are a "flyjin" — a take off on the Japanese word gaijin for foreigners — or if you're a "fryjin," indicating you stuck around to soak up radiation from the bubbling nuclear plant to the north.

The embassies made it easy to classify who was chicken and who wasn't. It's not too much of a shock that the French were the first to declare evacuation. Perhaps more surprising is that the Germans were the next to call for retreat, followed by the Canadians and the Australians.

The Americans gamely stood by Japan's assessment that there was nothing to fear from the meltdown, until eventually advising citizens to "defer travel" to Japan, and that those dwelling here should "consider departing." Then the embassy said it was providing anti-radiation, potassium iodide tablets to its own personnel and families. Perhaps after getting about a bajillion "whattaboutme?" calls, they opened up the rations to all Americans. I got mine.

It bears noting that the magnitude-9 quake was not "THE Big One," the devastating quake that's predicted to hit Tokyo at any point between the next five minutes and the next five decades. The epicenter was in a totally different place from the fault line that most-directly threatens the capital.

We're left wondering if the Tohoku quake — as the locals call The Burning Hammer — let off some tectonic steam, thus sparing Tokyo its doom. Or maybe it hastened it. What does seem clear is that the bigger quakes seem to be creeping south along the coastline, as though affected by some sort of longitudinal gravity.

The fact that our event came after two monstrous quakes in New Zealand, a volcano spout in southern Japan and other seismic anomalies suggests there's something impossibly big and terrifying at work. Movies have given us a stylized picture of what may be going on down there. My mind flips from Superman standing in the glowing red San Andreas rift, gorilla pressing the California coastline, to Hilary Swank piloting a big laser drill past ginormous diamonds in that shitty disaster film.

Like the protagonist in every single H.P. Lovecraft story, I'm alternately attracted and repelled by what may lie below. The earth's crust is about 30 miles thick: there could be Vermont-sized pockets of empty space in there, waiting to collapse in on themselves, driving walls of water into the sky. The more you try to comprehend the Cyclopian horror, the more tenuous one's hold on sanity becomes.

In the closer to one of his HBO specials, George Carlin belittled environmentalists for the arrogance to assume that we posed a threat to the earth. "The planet will shake us off like a bad case of fleas. A surface nuisance."

How will it do so? Well what we felt in Tokyo on March 11 was about a 5 on the magnitude scale. Using a neat little gadget on the USGS website, I looked up how much stronger a 9 would be.

One million times.

Holy. Fucking. Shit.