The forever mess

Friday, May 21, 2010

I am not a mechanic, and I don't pretend to be.

I have friends who take apart the engines in their cars, put them back together and call it a great weekend.

Once a year, I change the oil in my lawn mower.

So there.

I am careful, when I turn my mower on its side for the annual oil change, to avoid spilling any gasoline from the fuel tank. I run the mower until it is out of gas or nearly empty.

And I have a container made just for handyman oil changes that collects the oil. Once the container is full, it can be taken to a proper disposal site. At the rate of one lawn mower oil change each year, I have several years left to use my collection container.

One year, when I was trying to avoid the glare of the noonday sun, I took my lawn mower inside my garage for the oil-change ritual, which includes sharpening the blade (I use a file I found more than 40 years ago in an old wood shed) and oiling the wheels and other moving parts on the mower.

Somehow, the lawn mower shifted when I wasn't looking, and some of the dirty oil coming out of the mower spilled on the garage floor. I put some cat litter on the spill. After I cleaned up that mess, I tested the strength of several paper towels trying to get all the oil off the floor.

Years later, there is still a splotch on my garage floor that I see every time I park my car or back out of the garage. As far as I can tell, there will be evidence of my very minor oil spill for years and years.

I keep seeing the photos and videos of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It's hard to comprehend the magnitude of that spill. It doesn't matter whether the oil is gushing into the water at a rate of 5,000 barrels a day or 500,000 barrels. It's impossible for me to grasp what's happening.

And when I think of my little spill in the garage, I find I can't get my mind around what I know is equal to billions and billions more oil than I'll ever change in my lawn mower.

It's like trying to comprehend how many stars or solar systems or planets or moons there are in the sky at night. I remember when I used to be able to see the Milky Way on cloudless, moonless nights, trying to get my brain to calculate how many points of light I was seeing.

I can't do it.

For weeks now, Katie Couric has been showing me birds and turtles and fish covered in oil from the BP disaster site. Sometimes I can't stand it and, since we record "The CBS Evening News" every night, I hit the fast-forward button on the TV remote.

Miss Kitty, our calico cat, has some experience with oil. She occasionally manages to get a bit of gunk on her fur. We assume it's oil picked up underneath someone's vehicle, maybe our own cars parked in the garage. It takes a long, long time to remove the mess and restore her fur to its natural gloss.

Now I'm trying to imagine billions and billions of cats covered in oil, and rescue workers trying to clean them up to save their lives.

I can't do it.

jsullivan@semissourian.com<I>

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