Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Sailing the Black Seas

On July 27th, I got a call asking if I was available to head out for thirty days to the Gulf of Mexico and perform air testing associated with the BP oil spill cleanup effort. I used to do air sampling work full-time, and still work with my old company on occasion doing odd jobs and technical writing work, so it wasn't a matter of qualification that gave me pause. Neither was it the opportunity to see the oil spill first hand. Rather, it was the prospect of packing up and leaving my life as I know it for thirty days to go live on a barge that made the decision very difficult. After consulting with my girlfriend, family, and house mates—and getting plenty of assurance from them all that they could maintain things without me for a month—I decided it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up.

So, the next day I was flown off to New Orleans, then driven to a barge on the Intracoastal Canal. I spent the first week living on the barge at the docks waiting out Tropical Storm Andrew, then we—a crew of five workers, a cook, and myself—were towed away by a tug boat right to the epicenter of the oil spill. I can't fully explain what I witnessed out there. The sights, the sounds, the smells, even the schedule the seven of us on the barge lived, seemed to me similar to what living in a war zone must be like. The experience was at the same time both heartbreaking and awesome, but more than anything, frustrating.

The thousands of people out in the Gulf working to get that mess cleaned up are great, hard working people, and it's not on their account that the situation drove me crazy. Rather, it was how little we were able to do and the overall confusion. Whether it was a lack of organization or lack of information everyone was given, I can't say, but I felt like all the workers, vessels, helicopters, and spotter planes out there were little more than window dressing. That's just my impression, keep in mind. While I was on the barge, I was completely cut off from the outside world. No cell phone coverage. No Internet. No television or radio. Nothing. The impressions I walked away with were based solely on the gossip of other crew members and my observations, and they are certainly not reflective of the opinions of my employer, the company who subcontracted us out, or BP. In fact, I was asked not to speak to the press, nor post any pictures on-line. Hence, all I'll post here is my sole self portrait. (Note the ridiculous mustache—I had to shave off the beard in order to wear a respirator if necessary.)

I won't comment or editorialize more on the topic other than to say that it was an experience I won't ever be able to forget. The guys I worked with were great (with the exception of one particular asshole I'm not at liberty to name), and it was a one of a kind opportunity to see something in person rather than through the filtered perspective of news media. What I saw out there was so much more visceral than what we see on the news and in the papers, it made me really question the news we're exposed to these days. More significantly, on a personal level it's made me question my role as a writer. It's not as if I was unaware that the motivating force behind news journalism these days is getting ratings in order to boost profits via selling papers, selling ad space, getting commercials, etc. What surprised me was the feeling of impotence I came back with. The people I worked with down in the Gulf faced every day with an almost apathetic resignation to the fact that their livelihoods and quality of life were immeasurably degraded by the oil spill, but they didn't work less hard. As one of the guys I befriended said, “There ain't shit we can do about it, so what's the point in bitching?” The sentiment is more existential than it seems at first listen.

A couple of years back, I (re)adopted the strategy of trying to write stories with relevance to the real world—not necessarily social criticism, but stories that forced readers to look at the choices they made in their lives, personally, romantically, politically, and environmentally. Don't get me wrong, while every writer hopes his or her writing can impact readers for the better, I wasn't driven by some selfless motive to save the world. I'm not Mother Theresa. More relevant to me at this point in my career is the value in writing stories that can't be ignored, stories that editors have no choice but to publish. It's an attitude that first led me to writing, something I lost sometime while getting my Master's degree, and something I was happy to recapture these last few years. But now, after this experience in the Gulf, my confidence is shaken. I feel that I should be writing about what I saw out there, that I should offer, if not some sort of cure, at least an honest view of what's really going on. And yet I see everywhere so many other people with more power and influence than me trying do the same thing to no avail. There was a day when honest writing had an impact on the world. I'm not certain that honest writing is even discernible from the flotsam and jetsam that passes as news media and literature anymore.

A bit doomsday sounding, I know, and I apologize. I don't intend to change, if it's any solace. I won't be writing about the oil spill beyond this blog, at least not for the time being, but at the same time I don't intend to stop writing with attitude, and hopefully, with honesty. To that end, I've been re-acclimating myself back to normal life since returning. It took me about five days to get my land legs back and a bit longer to get caught up with e-mails, snail mail, and my personal relationships. I'm caught up now and am back to writing work. I sent off a slew of short story submissions, wrote a new short story, parted ways with the agent for This Book is Sh*t! (he had become too busy to actively shop around the project) and sent out new agent queries for both This Book is Sh*t! and Dreamwielder. In addition, I returned home from the Gulf to find some good news: Gypsy Shadow Press has offered me a contract to publish Umbral Visions, the book with my two novellas, “The Key Ring” and “The Shadow.” More news to come as the book goes into pre-production.

And for me, I look again for a renewed purpose to write with honesty, especially if it hurts.

-Garrett Calcaterra


  1. Well put. Sometimes writing fiction seems so trivial compared to what's really on in the world. But please keep writing ... I'd like to see ever more of your brand of thought-provoking escapism.