Mike Nagel


When I found Elizabeth in the office kitchen, clipping the little plastic rings that hold Coke cans together, I asked if she was saving baby ducklings. "No," she said. "Baby turtles." "Ah," I said. I forgot that we were supposed to be saving baby turtles. Or baby anythings. What's my responsibility, I thought, in terms of the sea?

There is, of course, a floating pile of garbage in the Pacific Ocean bigger than the state of Texas. I saw a documentary about it on YouTube.

"You're supposed to crush your yogurt containers too," Elizabeth says, still clipping.
      Clipping clipping clipping.
      "They're bigger on the bottom than the top. Animals can swim in but can't swim back out."
      Ocean life, it seems, is in a sticky situation these days.
      "You don't clip your Coke rings?" she says.
      "My what rings?"
      "Coke rings."
      "I don't buy Coke in cans. I'm a 2-liter man."
      I also don't eat yogurt but I keep that information to myself.
I've read that by 2020, 2/3rds of our wild animals will be dead, many of whom, I can only assume, live in the sea.



I stayed late after work drinking Bulliet bourbon left over from the Christmas party and thinking about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Wondering what it meant that there is a state-sized island of garbage bobbing up and down in the middle of one of our oceans. And while I thought about it, I watched a bum dive headfirst into a trashcan and come up with a foot-long Subway sandwich in his mouth.



I know that the things I throw away end up somewhere. But like an infant lacking object permanence, I also think that it all somehow ceases to exist.



Object permanence: the understanding that nothing ever ceases to exist, usually developed within the first four to seven months of being alive.



Through a minimum amount of effort (i.e. Wikipedia/first-page Google results) I learn that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is:
      A) Invisible
      B) Somewhere between the size of Texas and twice the size of the United States

I am amazed by its potential size but disappointed that it is not, in any way, inhabitable (I had imagined an island tribe of trash people living off the left-over lining of GoGurt sleeves.)

It is possible to boat through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and not even know it.



In the documentary, a scientist cuts open a fish and pulls out a fistful of blue plastic. Damn things swim with their mouths open. "Think about this the next time you're in line at Long John Silvers," the man says, I remember him saying, and then he tosses the carcass back into the sea.



According to a recent study, one bajillion tons of plastic washes up on California beaches every year.



Reader, I am not advocating for better recycling habits. I am simply telling you that whatever it is that you're trying to get rid of might one day come back to you. (True story: I once bought a used copy of The Scarlet Letter only to find my mom's name written inside the front cover. She had sold it, I learned, years before.)



When we were first married, my wife, a Canadian, used to save all our recycling until it was a heaping pile of milk cartons OJ jugs and beer bottles in the corner of the kitchen. Then, while she was out, I would bag it all up and throw it all away. Eventually she figured out that I was throwing it away but she kept saving it anyway. An act of morality, I thought. I was doing her dirty work.



At Elizabeth's birthday lunch (a different Elizabeth than the one above, but that's discard-able information) Rob tells me about a book he's reading that recommends picking up objects in your apartment and throwing away the ones that don't bring you joy. A high bar for my cork board coasters and Hamilton Beach crock pot, I think. "If I did that," I say "I would throw away everything I own." Rob nods excitedly, squirting Sriracha into his pho.



I don't see the Great Garbage Patch as an evil place but rather a sympathic character: a composite of throw-away things. (Who among us doesn't know what it feels like to be unwanted? Let him cast the first scone.)



In a worst-case-scenario (the only scenario I'm ever interested in) the Great Pacific Garbage Patch accounts for 8% of the entire Pacific Ocean.



While doing a Google search for "How much of something does something have to be before it IS that thing" I am re-directed to a Brain Pickings article entitled "How Long It Takes to Form a Habit," which I decide to work in reverse in order to stop drinking. i.e. In order to stop getting wasted. i.e. In order to stop turning myself into waste. (Is my current interest in garbage just more veiled interest in myself?)



If you were to stand on the edge of Huntington Beach Pier in Huntington Beach, CA and toss an empty Minute Made Orange Juice container out into the ocean, it would take six years for that container to make its way to the Great Garbage Patch via the North Equestorial Current, onto the Kuroshio, where it would ultimately reach the CONVERGENCE ZONE directly above the Hawaiian Islands.



The CONVERGENCE ZONE: Where all the things you've ever wanted to forget end up. They float just beneath the surface, invisible to satellite photography. Ghosts in the water.



Confession: I don't understand— have never understood— what my CARBON FOOTPRINT is. As a kid, I pictured the imprint of a giant shoe frozen in Han Solo carbonite. In any case: permanent.



Historians, my historian friend tells me at a Christmas party, both of us drinking spiked cider out of paper cups, are far more interested in a civilization's garbage than their treasures. The things we keep are curated/aspirational. The things we throw away are personal. There is, it seems...truth in our trash. Assemble everything I've thrown away over the past 29 years and there I'll be, in the negative space.



What I like about Elizabeth clipping the Coke rings is the bold-faced hopelessness of it: this will end up in the water.



A real stat now: 14 billion pounds of trash makes its way into our oceans every year. There seems to be much more not-wanting than wanting going on, I think, recalling Rob's suggestion re: objects/joy, and highlighting and unhighlighting the figure— 14 billion— which appears on the first page of my Google search results without me even having to click into a page.



"makes its way..."— an attempt to assign agency to my trash? An abdication of my baby-turtle responsibilities? A lazy writing trick to turn a passive process into the all-mighty ACTIVE SENTENCE? Or do I actually believe that my garbage wants what's coming to it?



"Would it bother you to know that there is an island of garbage bigger than the state of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean?"
      "Yes," my wife says. "That would bother me."
      It's December 2016. We are driving to my parents' house for soup. It has been, I realize, six years since we lived in the apartment where I threw all of her recycling away. By now it must be exiting the Kuroshio, approaching the ZONE.



On the Wikipedia page for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch you can watch an animated time-lapse of its birth, recreated digitally via NASA's oceanographic models and three-decades worth of buoy data. The "garbage" appears as bright white nodes ala PAC-MAN pixels. I watch the video first on silent, then with sound. This is how I learn that there's not one but five garbage patches around the world, confirmed by research the narrator— a likeable, soft-spoken man named Greg— calls "robust."



I take a shit (a "dump"). Create "waste." Stare down at my dick and balls: my "junk." In a week-long state of perpetual hang over, I tell J that I'm tired of, "feeling like garbage."
      "It's up to you to REFUSE to be REFUSE," J says, not really, but can you imagine?! I've eaten nothing but Totino’s Pizza Rolls for sixteen years. It occurred to me recently that our bodies work exactly like a Mr. Fusion. Ashes to ashes, trash to trash.



How many discarded novels have ended up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? How many abandoned 16mm student films? How many half-finished needle-work pillows, half-built ship-in-a-bottles, half-blank Baby's First Year scrap books, half-knit I Love You mittens?

How much of who we are is who we've been? (What percent?)



Me: I delete every rejection email I get. Then I go into my trash folder and delete them again. But the emails still exist, in the SENT folders of various publications and, most likely, somewhere within Amazon's AWS servers buried deep underground in an undisclosed location of Northern Virginia.



There are reports that suggest Facebook never permanently deletes a photo. They only ever alternate between visible and invisible. On/Off. But never erased.



Even after Jodi Arias deleted the photos of her boyfriend, Travis Alexander, dead in the shower from multiple knife wounds, investigators were able to open up her digital camera and recover the files since, apparently, deleting something is not enough to be rid of it. Since, APPARENTLY, nothing is ever really gone.



There is a species of jellyfish in the Mediterranean that scientists believe lives forever. Turritopsis dohrnii.



My mom has laid out my old things on the carpet of my old bedroom. Water-stained boxes stored in the attic for the years since I left home. "What do you want to keep?" she says, standing in the doorway with her arms folded. I look through the heap of junk for a single object that "brings me joy."
      Participation soccer trophies.
      Mostly-empty sketch books.
      A journal from the six months I spent in Africa as a Christian.
      "Throw it all away," I say after thirty minutes, which I later learn my mom doesn't do. She had to keep a few things. Had to keep, I understood, me. Our knick knacks are a form of object memory. Mementos. The word souvenir is French for "Remember!"



I read an article in Wired about a woman with no memory. She knows who she is but can't remember where she's been. She does not remember where she got her Cayman Islands plastic lizard. Presumably the Cayman Islands. But, the writer notes: "No less a figure than the philosopher John Locke argued that memory, the kind McKinnon lacks, is the very thing that constitutes personal identity." What percentage of who we are is who we've been? Maybe 100%.



i.e. That's us out there, converging in the zone.



I read on the Wikipedia page for John Wayne Gacy, Jr. that they found 26 bodies in his crawl space. One under his garage garage. And a few months later, one near the barbecue grill in his backyard. Gacy drew a map to save the diggers time. All the bodies were found in an advanced state of decay, identifiable only by their dental records. A last resort, but reliable. The tell tale teeth! There may be no limit to how long our pearly whites will last. Their decay stops as soon as ours begins. We rot around them. After death, we're all smiles. Recently a student in France found a tooth older than the Neanderthal.









This essay, a collection of garbage in itself, came together one piece at a time over the course of a few weeks. An accumulation of scraps. Read more about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch [here].