Ashes to Ashes: We All Fall Down and It's Okay
Just because I haven’t posted in the past couple of days doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about you. On the contrary; I’m working on some things, but I keep getting sidetracked from the things I really want to write about. A few days ago, for instance, I was going to write about the Bureau of Labor Stat's desire to stop requiring employers to provide gender data in their monthly payroll reports. But as I was transferring thoughts from brain to fingertip that morning, I heard about the commuter train wreck in Glendale, California, and then my stream of consciousness took me in unexpected directions, mostly related to irony and death. Don't worry, though; I haven't been a totally glum chum.
I started mentally tracking railway accidents in 2002, when three items were seared into my psyche that year:
February 20, near Ayyat, Egypt: 361 people on a passenger train were killed in a fire that erupted when a gas tank used for cooking exploded.
May 25, Muamba, Mozambique: 192 people died and hundreds were injured when some passenger cars became disconnected from the rest of the train as it ascended mountainous terrain. They hurtled backwards for several miles at top speed before crashing into freight cars disconnected from the same train.
June 24, near Msagali, Tanzania: A runaway passenger train collided with a freight train on same track, leaving 200 dead, 400 injured.
I’m not trying to be a bummer, nor am I discouraging train travel. It’s just that those incidents of 2002 struck me particularly hard because two occurred in places where I have family and which happen to be amongst the poorest countries in the world. What kind of rescue efforts do you think took place there? I remember reading that in the Tanzanian effort, would be rescuers wore layers of socks on their hands because they had nothing else with which to protect themselves from the sharp metal, glass, or even blood. Out of latex gloves, the doctors wore socks, too.
This is not to diminish what happened in L.A. In fact, the southern Cal story is even worse to me than what happened in 1995, when a speeding passenger train in India rammed another train that stalled after hitting a cow, injuring more than 400 people, killing more than 300, and ensuring the death of the cow. What could be worse than numbers such as these? That the L.A. accident was caused by someone who had wanted to kill himself and changed his mind at the last minute—a decision that led to the deaths of 11 and injuries to more than 200. And now he’ll be tried for murder and eligible for the death penalty. While I was riding the BART train last night, I overheard an elderly man and a teen discussing the matter; it was the man who said of the suspect, “He should have stayed in the car.” Is that harsh or humanitarian?
Mulling over the answer made me think about the couple dozen or so desperate or simply fed up folks who succeed in tossing themselves off the Golden Gate Bridge each year, making for a splashy exit. Filmmaker Eric Steel has recently created a brouhaha, having tricked the Golden Gate National Recreation Area into allowing him to film the jumpers under the guise of making a movie about the “the grandeur” of the bridge. In response to Steel’s real intentions, San Francisco City Supervisor Tom Ammiano said, “It’s creepy. Whatever the intention of the film, you can’t help but think of a snuff film.” Yet Steel considers it, “a movie about the human spirit in crisis.” Is it one, the other, or both?
In 1993, Jerry Herron published a book called Afterculture: Detroit and the Humiliation of History, which is an accurately catchy title for a postmodernist theory book. I keep coming back to “the humiliation of,” and I don’t quite know what to do with it. It enters my mind in each of the above anecdotes, and I realize that in instances where it should be seemingly obvious, I don’t always know for whom to feel sorry, yet perhaps more importantly, I am certain that I wanna feel sorry for someone.
For instance, should we have any amount of sympathy for the man who caused the commuter wreck, or is that misplaced energy? The unauthorized filming of would be and successful suicides is indeed creepy. But is it truly wrong? I’m asking, 'cause I really don’t know.
Now here's a leap. I know the original Moral Majority was dissolved in 1989, but 14 years later we’re witnessing a resurrection: The Moral Majority Coalition with Jerry Falwell at the helm again. I don’t think they’ve made much of a splash just yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this turns out to be a sleeper movement. As a friend recently opined in comments posted on this blob, “We now live in a contemporary puritan society where the only acceptable viewpoint is a Christian one.” To which I add, the question “What Would Jesus Do?®” is both registered and a fashion statement.The more morality is used as an acceptable excuse or mission statement these days, the more I realize I have no idea what it is. Sure I have my own personal morality; but the morality of the collective? In addition to being subjective (eye of the beholder), morality is as much a matter of context. We can easily mourn the victims, but can we as easily define them?
These thoughts hit me hardest as I sat directly on a 1/2 inch push pin while changing my shoes at the bath house. A flyer had fallen off the board above the bench on which I parked myself heavily. It was an ad for a dance. Later that day, I witnessed a teenager on a motorized scooter accidently mow down another teen, bark at him for getting in the way, and then zoom away, hit and run style. Hours later I watched the tiniest chiuaua take on a 6'5", 300 lb. man who had merely been strolling along the same sidewalk. Then I caught a bus and sat next to a woman stroking her pet rat. I came home and couldn't write a word. My mind spun in too many directions. I couldn't even tackle personal problems.
You'll perhaps excuse me then, if my thoughts aren't quite linear. Somehow I take all of the above and come up with the notion that we are the both the perpetrators and the victims—victims of our own technology, victims of our own mad fantasies, victims of our own attitudes and beliefs. Maybe our whole culture is a destructive suicide cult. Take the death of a city (see Detroit) or a school system (Oakland) or a nation state (Iraq … or the U.S.). It flabbergasts me how social progress is always steps back before forward and seemingly never enough to make up for the regression. I’m guessing the cow didn’t know the ramifications of standing ground on the rail; and maybe some people would have refrained from a swan dive if they’d known they were being taped. When a state has to take a city or school district into receivership or when a country decides to run another one’s business, I wonder about the A to Z.
As I wonder, I wander—call it mental masturbation, a process that usually happens on a good day. Believe it or not, these mismatched thoughts are usually part of a good train of thought because they don’t upset me. I wonder because I’m convinced that somehow every anomaly and every happenstance and every state of being is interconnected. Like Einstein, I need to believe in one unifying theme. But I’m no Albert. I only know that when I stop wondering I will experience death from the other side.
It’s winter, a time when things die or appear dead, often to spring to back to (new) life as the days get longer. This winter I’ve really felt the season, becoming a recluse—home bound by choice and by circumstance. Grappling with emotional stuff related to the job-then-joblessness-now-new-job; continuing to sort out the loss of my mother; trying to absorb the rollercoaster of a challenging intimate relationship that has brought unexpected pleasure and pain; worrying about the various traumas being experienced by other friends and family; trying to stay warm and dry; battling my hair—these are all areas in which I’ve felt like both victim and perp, sometimes both simultaneously. It struck me this way last year:
We brave the elements
December at the ocean
beach hardened sand
waves run amok
depositing sea foam
that skitters across the dark palette
dead things washed ashore
plant animal refuse once living
now drowned but possibly maybe
to live anew
city-worn, depressed and house-bound
enjoying a day in the sun after feeling
Relentless wind freezes our earlobes
lending white noise to the pounding pounding
of sand being pummeled pummeled
of ear drums thumped thumped
of skin battered battered
and sea wings flapping flapping
into recognition of a certain kind of freedom
My mom wrote: “Look at me now—no longer working, getting old, suffering from an incurable illness, with my muscles having wasted away, unable to walk, drive, struggling with the smallest task like combing my hair, brushing my teeth while standing, which means somebody has to be there at all times to make sure I am comfortable and my needs are met, to love me unconditionally, and that is your dad. Like any other couples, we've had our ups and downs but the years have been wonderful; we are still best of friends. Many times now I feel sorry for him because I am not what I used to be. . . . ”
Who among us is?
I owe you one about the BLS—death of statistics.