Chernobyl: Life After Disaster

I’ve always had a slight obsession with the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident. I remember in middle school singing my own version of Little Bunny Foo Foo that involved the sudden nuclear accident and a mutated bunny. Of course mutated animals have never been found in the disaster zone, either because such mutations just don’t happen or because such horribly compromised animals didn’t last long and their evidence was never found.

Chernobyl fictions (and nuclear ones in general) persist. Back in 2004 stories of a motorcycle riding girl speeding through the radioactive zones spread across the net (myself included). Chernobyl tour guides accuse the author, Elena Filatova, of fabricating the motorcycle rides. Apparently she went on a regular tour with a motorcycle helmet in hand and posed for pictures. It’s also highly questionable that anyone would risk racing a motorcycle across the broken and poorly maintained asphalt in the exclusion zone.

Anyway, much of my new found interest comes from reading the book Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl by Mary Mycio. It’s an in-depth account of the aftermath of Chernobyl, focusing on the natural impact on plants, animals, waterways and more. Sometimes the scientific details were a little too in-depth.

But I did learn one major thing from the book: Life goes on after a disaster. We find ways to carry on, reasons to continue, in spite of incredible odds.

The primary example is the wildlife that’s now exploding in the 30-mile exclusion zone around Chernobyl. Endangered species are thriving. A nearly extinct species of wild horse now has several herds in the zone. It’s a migratory stopover for birds and creating viable habitat for all kinds of animals: elk, moose, roe deer, wolves, boar, foxes, beaver, horses and more.

Many of them are highly radioactive. Which means hunting and fishing are prohibited. And that’s giving some of these animals a better chance than they’ve had before. Nobody knows the extend of radiation damage on these animals, but in the big picture radiation is far less of a threat than humanity. In the exclusion zone where people are limited and vast stretches of open reserve land are available to the animals, nature is thriving. Despite the risk of radiation.

Perhaps a less encouraging example of life carrying on after a disaster is the fact that the Chernobyl power plant itself didn’t just shut down after the 1986 accident when the fourth reactor exploded. I never knew this, but apparently reactors 1-3 remained in use until they were decommissioned in 2000. Chernobyl was generating a huge chunk of energy for the Soviet Union and they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) afford to shut it down. When faced with getting their energy from fossil fuel sources, the Ukraine government balked and allowed the three remaining reactors to keep on running.

Sometimes our reasons for carrying on in the face of disaster are a little less inspiring.

But life finds a way.

(Photo by VOA Photo / D. Markosian)

Running & Writing: You Have to Be Consistent

I’m not going to be one of those people who blogs or tweets about his incredible athletic achievements. I’m not going to tell you how I’m running a marathon or crushing my 5K time or trying a fancy new workout program. Whatever.

I am getting more exercise lately. But nobody cares about that. Frankly, I’m slow, sad and pokey and no one wants to read updates about my abysmal mile times.

But I have learned one thing from exercising: You have to be consistent.

I started exercising again because it makes me feel good. It’s good stress relief, it feels amazing when I’m done and it’s good for me. But if I slack off for a week and try to get back into it, it sucks. If I don’t run for a week, then go for a run it isn’t fun anymore. Then it sucks. My joints revolt and my legs want to cramp up and my knees hurt. When I finally get home I don’t feel like a million bucks, I feel like I want to die.

Same thing on the bike. If I haven’t been biking then every little rise is a mountain and I have no energy or stamina to make it up. But even a little bit of consistency and I’m cruising up the incline.

It’s about consistency. You have to keep at it. It’s true in exercising, it’s true in writing, it’s true in anything creative, it’s true in much of life.

Keep going. And if you do slack off and get behind, get back up again. That first time will suck. But the second time will feel better. Remember that when you’re tempted to skip a day. Don’t. Save yourself that sucky run and stay consistent.


Olympic Fever

We’ve been swept up in Olympic Fever around here, taking in as much Olympics as we can. And since it’s a vacation, I’m probably watching more Olympics than I have in a long time. It’s really fun getting into the drama and the stories of each athlete.

But I have to say it breaks my heart when the silver medalist breaks down in tears. I know it’s not gold, but you’re second place in the entire freaking world. Buck up.

That was the image we saw of Russia’s Victoria Komova after the women’s individual all around. She lost to Gabby Douglas (Could anyone have a more infectious smile? Yes, Missy Franklin.) and collapsed in tears, inconsolable. She could barely even stand to wear the silver medal.

I get the disappointment, but it’s also the Olympics. You’re awesome. In a world of 7 billion people, you’re number two.

That was the sentiment of the jovial Missy Franklin: “I don’t think fourth at the Olympics is a disappointing swim at all,” she said, talking about teammate Lochte’s finish (though she had a fourth place of her own).

Then there’s 15-year-old Katie Ledecky who destroyed the field in the 800 meter freestyle, winning by more than 4 seconds. Afterword when asked how she did it, she said something to the effect of, “I set high goals and reached for them, and this just blew everything out of the water.” She gives the impression that her “high goals” were far short of gold. But there she is, a shocked and glorious winner.

Then there’s the Chinese athlete who won silver and broke down crying on live national media coverage, apologizing for letting his country down (it was an NPR story, can’t find it online). That’s harsh.

There’s also the 3-time gold medal winning Chinese diver who after winning her medal learned that her grandmother had died–more than a year ago. And that her mom had been battling breast cancer for years. Her family didn’t want the death to distract her from the Olympics. That’s a little too intense.

The Olympics are an amazing opportunity and a chance to celebrate human achievement and skill. It shouldn’t be a time for sore losers. Personally, I’m sitting here on the couch amazed at how these athletes can contort their bodies, whether it’s the cyclists pouring on the speed for the last sprint, the runners with their feet flying a fluorescent Nike blur, the gymnasts spinning in the air (and with biceps bigger than my head) or the soccer players running for 45 minutes straight. It’s incredible and inspiring.

Makes me want to run and bike and swim. And yesterday I did. One lap of the pool left me gasping. Not like the women’s 100 meter sprinters who hardly looked winded. That’s just incredible.