Cover Photo: So beautiful.  But you are going to die anyway.
So beautiful. But you are going to die anyway.

Lolita and the OPEC Basket

I’ve seen that look in this part of town: men, mostly older, walking down the street with supermodel on their arm and a scattered and unhappy expression on their faces. Why?

East Village, New York, 2005

I was walking down Stanton near Ludlow on the Lower East Side last night when a handsome man and a gorgeous young woman, whom I’ve seen in magazines, stopped to ask me for directions. The man had the confused, embattled look of someone who has been dating a supermodel for one to three months. I’ve seen that look before, this is a model-young-thin part of town and I see men, mostly older, walking down the street with supermodel on their arm and a scattered and unhappy expression on their faces.Why?This is what I imagine: if you are a man who seeks beauty and you finally get a beautiful girlfriend, as time passes, eventually you will realize that you are waking up next to a specific collection of teeth, eyes, hair and skin. It may start to dawn on you that there aren’t any answers or essential truths in pleasing surfaces. If you keep recursively questioning why you so single-mindedly sought youthful beauty, you will eventually end up in a place where you realize this pursuit is just an elaborate, weird form of fleeing death. And you are very surprised to end up in a place so philosophical and barren. The thought fit his odd expression.

The woman was nice, smiled in a way that could launch a navy. As I spoke to her I caught him looking not at her but at me, in a frankly considering way. I wondered if he was thinking that his drive, the perennial male need to strive, might be better served by a plainer woman.

I gave them directions, watched them walk away, and went home to work on a magazine article about highly efficient furnaces that burn biomass (wood, corn, etc). Fraichement, mes vieux, I have pondered the issues of burning wood and corn versus oil, and I offer this observation: the dead really do give up their souls, and we really do have something in us while we are alive.

We as a technological civilization moved from burning biomass (plants) to burning oil because it burns much more efficiently. Why is it more efficient? Its chemicals are much more available for combustion. Oil is made of long-dead zooplankton and algae. By mixing with heat of the earth, and being compressed with mud and hydrocarbon gases and more compression, these dead animals and plants became the soupy black liquid we know as oil, which easily gives up its hydrocarbons, which is what is combustible and gives up energy.

The reason it is so hard to get gases out of wood is because of “biomass recalcitrance.” You ever try to burn green wood? The hydrocarbons are chemically bonded to living carbohydrates of cellulose and hemicellulose, which are tough and fibrous, holding on tight to their life-sustaining energy. To get the combustion chemicals out, you have to loosen up the fibers. One clever and promising method: get the cellulose and hemicellulose drunk. That is, ferment them with ethanol. When drunk/fermented, they give up all sorts of stuff they wouldn’t while sober. Like this dude I kissed at a party in ‘92 after a few drinks. (See? See how I can relate everything to love/love gone wrong? Is there a prize for this anywhere?)

Seriously, though, doesn’t it make a kind of weird intelligent sense, even though no intelligence is involved—that something living would fiercely guard its fuel, and something long, long dead would give it up easily. There isn’t intelligence in the plant per se, but there is a kind of marvelous intelligence in how life operates, what life knows.

One last thing (tonight) about my dip into oil: do you remember that list in Lolita of her little classmates, and how Humbert Humbert goes through it and gives a thumbnail description of each child based on their name? I have one to offer and that list is the OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) Reference Basket, which is bewitchingly known as ORB. These are the names of the oils that ORB uses to set its prices:

1. Saharan Blend

2. Minas

3. Iran Heavy

4. Basra Light

5. Kuwait Export

6. Es Sider

7. Bonny Light Nigeria

8. Qatar Marine

9. Arab Light

10. Murban

11. BCF 17

There is a lot going on here—Minas reminds me of a Midas, a king in ermine, Bonny Light Nigeria sounds like some kind of interracial dating that’s going on. Basra Light rhymes with "explosions in the night". Qatar seems like it would be a really cool place; first, for not needing a “u” and then also because “Qatar” sounds like “guitar,” also like in old movies where people complain of “catarrh.” Es Sider sounds like an unenthused person about a holy day,“eh, meh, would love to talk to you longer mamele but, eh, meh, is Seder.”There is Murban, for whom I am sorry, and BCF 17, which is from Venezuela and should be renamed “Shakira.”

Our oil, North American oil, is called WTI, short for West Texas Intermediate—yes, there is a giddy imprecision in oil names and geography. “Brent,” for example, refers to oil from the Shetland Islands. I am assuming that Intermediate refers to its viscosity, as “light” and “heavy” refer to viscosity in oil names. “Sweet” refers to low sulfur content (“sour” as the opposite, but I have not come across an oil with sour in its name). Thus, Brent Light Sweet Crude means Shetland light viscosity oil with a low sulfur content.

When you watch the Nightly Business Report on teev and your eyes glaze over a little harder listening to oil names, now you have a better idea of what you are listening to. All these oils are traded on different exchanges.

We are running out of dead things to burn oil. Whenever we really start to understand this, members of the OPEC nations, who are afraid that we will develop alternative technologies and have less need for their product, get on television and say that there is plenty of oil for quite some time, and there is no need to alter the way we live now. Conservative politicians are happy to collude, to encourage us to go on thinking and living just as we always have.

Which actually brings me back to that couple I saw earlier tonight—the look in that man’s eyes. He understood, perhaps momentarily, that he had built his life up on the pursuit of the material best, and that this exacts a cost. As he looked at me, maybe he was thinking that there were other possibilities out there, different looking women, different ages, with different things to offer, and that this need for oil youthful beauty was artificially bred by the marketplace, and would never bring lasting happiness.

Ah, to turn your back on what society values…and then perhaps he saw a future as a hippie, burning wood and corn while his homely girlfriend does chores. No. A New York man does not fight for success in order to settle. Best to go with death.

Kirsten Major was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  She was educated at Emma Willard School in Troy, NY Carleton College in Northfield, MN, and Cornell University, where she received an MFA from the writing program.  Recent work has appeared in Crannog, No Tokens Journal, and LitBreak, among others.  Find her on twitter @kirstenamajor