My bad

What the ruination of the Gulf of Mexico has to do with a formerly gallant expression

Marine parking lot: The seemingly placid ships above try to cope with the mess below.

Marine parking lot: The seemingly placid ships above try to cope with the mess below.

Photo © BP P.L.C.

I first heard the expression “my bad” used on a basketball court circa 1975. The expression most likely came into being among jazz musicians, for many of the most popular expressions emanating from black America were first used by musicians, then quickly adapted for the basketball court. By the time these expressions were in common use among white people, their original meanings were frequently distorted and even reversed. The most famous example of such reversal is the expression “up tight.” Originally an expression of praise for excellent playing by an improvising musician, and used with that original meaning by Little Stevie Wonder singing, “up tight, out of sight,” white folk eventually deformed the phrase to mean tense, as in “I am so uptight.” Fascinating, no?

My immediate inspiration for writing about all this is the disastrous oil flood ongoing in the Gulf of Mexico and the grief my friends and I are feeling about the catastrophe. I refuse to call this horror a leak or a spill, for it is a flood that will likely render the Gulf of Mexico a dead sea for the rest of our mortal lives. So what does the ruination of the Gulf of Mexico have to do with the expression “my bad”? I will tell you.

Nowadays the expression “my bad” is generally used to mean “my mistake.” Someone spills a cup of coffee and says, “Oops. My bad.” Or someone forgets to bring the beer and apologizes with, “Sorry. My bad.” But the original meaning of the expression was more profound than a simple apology. To illustrate: I am playing a game of basketball. My teammate makes a poor pass and, despite my best effort, I am barely able to touch the ball before it goes out of bounds. My teammate calls, “My bad,” thus announcing to everyone playing the game that it was his error that caused the ball to go out of bounds, not my error. By proclaiming “my bad,” he is taking responsibility for something that may have appeared to have been my fault. Cool, huh? I consider the original use of “my bad” a form of gallantry, which is a far cry from how the expression is generally used today.

Which brings me to the massive cloud of oil suffocating the Gulf of Mexico: Though it may appear that British Petroleum and Halliburton and the myriad corrupt presidents and politicians who instituted deregulation are responsible for the ruination of the Gulf of Mexico, I must proclaim “My bad.”

I say “My bad,” because I drive a car that runs on gasoline. I heat my water and cook my food with propane. I illuminate my house and run my computer with electricity, some of which comes from oil-fueled power plants. I say “My bad,” because after years of trying to start a boycott of Chevron as a component of a meaningful anti-war movement, I gave up. I say “My bad,” because I moved from the city, where, without a car, my environmental footprint was minimized, to the country, where I drive a car now and depend heavily on oil to live the life I lead. I pay taxes that finance illegal and immoral wars for oil.

I am a car person in a car culture. I can certainly do more than I am currently doing to use less of everything, but especially less gasoline. So I say “My bad,” because without me and a billion other versions of me, there would be no deep-water drilling, no tides of death. I don’t say “My bad” to exonerate the corporations most immediately responsible for this most horrendous oil flood, but to explain why I feel it is not entirely their fault.

And I am fairly certain the reason everyone I know is feeling depressed and defeated and hopeless about the massive oil eruption in the Gulf of Mexico is because, along with the loss of so much irreplaceable habitat and the massive suffering that must inevitably accompany such loss, we all know it is our bad.

This essay initially ran in the Sacramento News & Review.