Pat and I have been binging on documentaries, together. They’re making me want to become a better person.
Actually, clarification. (Not the part about being a better person. Definitely want that.) We’re watching documentaries together, but separately. It started when our schedules stopped synching. Documentary watching is the one thing we’ve been able to do together on short notice.
Feels a little like we’re back in high school. Except we weren’t in high school together. But if we were in high school together—back in the days of land lines, one phone number for an entire family, and no call waiting—we would’ve like, totally, tied up the phone watching Family Ties together. Mind you, we didn’t talk during the episode. Just sat in silence with phones pressed to ears. Knowing we were on borrowed time, before our parents found out. Their much-awaited offspring. Heirs to the family line. Short-circuiting critical calls. Becoming completely unreasonable at the discovery. Bellowing, “YOU CAN SEE EACH OTHER AT SCHOOL. HANG UP NOW!”
It’s why being a grown-up is so cool. Friends and I can now totally pull stunts like remote TV-watching without parental retaliation. Except now, Pat and I just text each other while documentary-binging. (Who actually calls people any more?) Starting with an “all clear here—you?” text with a documentary title. If our schedules lock, we settle down on our separate couches. Synch our respective Netflix or YouTube accounts. Hit Play.
Spend the next couple hours watching and texting shrieking commentaries. So much disturbing news. So much that needs to be changed. So motivating me to become that better person and BE the CHANGE. So powerless to actually change any of it.
The Ebola documentary. Pat and I text, “Is THAT their HOSPITAL?” and "Can't we do more to help?"
The one about ISIS. “WHAT did we DO to the MIDDLE EAST?” and other commentaries on the delicate balance between our "help," turning into long-term commitments.
Prison injustice. “The courts forced teens to WAIVE THEIR RIGHTS to a lawyer?” How do you reform a legal system?
Chinese smog. Notably, the recently banned-by-the-Chinese-government documentary, Under the Dome—Investigating China’s Smog. My inner teen—still wanting to punch buttons—demanded that we watch it because of the banning. You say, “No, forbidden.” I say, “Bring popcorn.”
Previously, only heard bits and pieces about the pollution crisis in that part of the world. A Taiwanese friend (who is quick to point out that although her people have a Chinese culture and history, they are not Chinese, and to not confuse the two), recently posted pictures of the Rubber Duck sculpture (the brainchild of Dutch conceptual artist, Florentijn Hofman) in their harbor.
Comments poured in as her readers reacted to otherwise invisible particles of gray pollutants (Disgusting!” and “What are we breathing?”), becoming visible after finding a resting place on the surface of a nuclear-yellow duck. Drawing vertical lines of pollution, becoming a darker pool of gray at the bottom, where it mixed with the water.
A relatively small example, in comparison to what Under the Dome revealed. Pollution such that I’d never dreamed of. Actually, I rarely think of pollutants. My part of the world doesn’t have these concerns … and it hurts my head to imagine a land where checking an air quality app before leaving home—to better plan the day—is the norm. A child saying she has only seen a blue sky once, but it was a small patch, managing to break through the smog.
To prevent panic, spin doctors told locals the thick, low-lying smog was fog. Just fog. Nothing to worry about. That might tie into the reason for the video banning. A BBC World News podcast (didn’t write down the air date), said that the Chinese government was making pollution reforms, but slowly. The government yanked the documentary out of fear that people would demand faster changes, and the government couldn’t keep up with the displeased masses. Which is a shame: Under the Dome also spelled out ways ordinary citizens could contribute to the effort.
A horrifying story, but it’s also happening on the other side of the planet. Making it somewhat easy to watch and forget. Flaws in faraway land that don’t affect me.
Then Pat and my documentaries got a little too close to home. Enter Plastic Paradise: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It details the fate of plastic garbage that ends up in the Pacific Ocean. Reminds that plastic is forever. It won’t biodegrade, and can end up permanently swirling in oceans or permanently lodged in little Flipper’s stomach, unless we better manage our use and disposal.
Our texting got especially wild during that one. Pat, ranting, “What am I supposed to do? They want me to stop using plastic. I can’t cut plastic out of my life.” We took a mental assessment. My glasses are plastic. The flowers I bought, wrapped in plastic. My butter tub, plastic. Milk jug, plastic. My IKEA chairs, plastic. Makeup, encased in plastic.
Of course, documentaries like this are meant to start the conversation for change, not to make drastic changes. (Oh, no, have I been listening to the Chinese government?) How many medical supplies are plastic? When does the durability of plastic outweigh using glass? Where do the discussions of using our natural resources come into play? Are we willing to kill a tree in lieu of preventing one more ounce of plastic to be created? Are we willing to override our consumer culture, for the sake of a greater good?
All logic went out the window when the documentary focused on those Starbucks drinks that I’m so fond of. Coffee lids, plastic. Frappuccino’s plastic cup and domed lid. None of which are recyclable. I wailed in my text, “I’m a baby seal killer, Pat. A killer, Pat, a killer.”
Because my reasoning is backwards, talking about Starbucks made me want a Starbucks. Definitely a Frappuccino. A baby-seal-killing drink. But. I want to be The Change, and from what I learned from the Chinese, knew how I could be The Change. I texted Pat. “I’m doing it. I’m doing it! I’m remembering to bring my reusable mug. And saving a seal!”
The problem is that my mug is a weird size. It’s 10 ounces, but the smallest size for Starbucks is 12 ounces. Maybe someone in product development was dying to go home early, and decided to fudge on materials. Each time I buy a drink, I warn the barista that my mug is an off size. In case it affects their measuring. In case they want to give me a discount.
My request befuddled the barista. He didn’t know how to grant a discount. Fell over himself, trying to find a solution. I thought telling him that a discount didn’t matter, but baby seals did matter, would soothe him. Didn’t work.
When my drink came up, the barista proudly said, “I found a solution for the problem!” He put my mug on the bar, with another smaller cup containing the overflow. A disposable, baby-seal-killing, plastic cup.
He was so happy. I had no choice but to stifle my tears. Thank him for his ingenuity. I don’t think he heard the despair in my voice.