Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Tragedy and Perspective.

After reading a couple of rather heavy books on "cults", I figured I'd lighten my reading up a bit. So I chose Ace Collins' Tragedies of American History: 13 Stories of Human Error and National Disaster. Yeah, really. I don't know what's up with me either... perhaps it has something to do with the end of Summer?

What is it that makes me want to read accounts of mass suffering and destruction? I've always been intrigued by the way people respond to extreme circumstances. Within the first couple of post-collegiate years when I started reading for pleasure, I discovered Albert Camus' The Plague. I remember liking it far more than The Stranger. I enjoyed picking out the indidividual character types, and trying to predict how they would react as their situation worsened. Years later I would gravitate to non-fiction accounts of catastrophe. Stewart O'Nan's The Circus Fire was a particular favorite. His descriptions of the harrowing fire underneath the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey big top really made me relate to the plights of the victims.

I continued to seek out these tales of misfortune. Sea wrecks, earthquakes, floods... the natural disaster genre was ripe with devastation. Reading these works could throw me into a brooding depression for days, yet I felt some strange compulsion to continue. I even sought out 70's disaster movies, like The Towering Inferno and the Poseidon Adventure. I realized that I finally had gone over the edge when I found myself watching that crappy Will Smith vehicle with the earth-threatening asteroids. That made me step back for a bit.

This past year when Katrina hit, I slid right back into the familiar pattern. I read as many personal accounts of loss as I could find on the internet. The more explicit and horrible the stories were, the more I could feel for the victims. I read with particular interest of the experiences the unfortunate folks were having at the Convention Center and the Superdome. The rawest humanity and animal tendencies were on display, with no holds barred. I tried to imagine what strategies I would employ to get through a period of personal and collective hell.

My obsession with New Orleans pushed me through a period of speculation about worldwide catastrophe. I read about the "peak oil" phenomena, and global warming. I began to stockpile gallons of water, and considered buying a few guns and some gold. In this pursuit I was not alone. Some friends and I had rounds of discussion regarding how best to prepare for worst-case scenarios. Should we buy land in West Virginia, or go target shooting in Cranberry? If nothing else, these preoccupations took the sting out of Winter.

But then daily life and obligations set in, and the joys of Spring and Summer came back around. I put aside my explorations of doom and threw myself into whatever subjects struck me as novel and intriguing. This is healthy- to remind oneself of the lighter side of the spectrum of life. I decided to embrace each day, and extract its meaning and multiple amusements.

Yet the pendulum swings once again, and now we're approaching Falll, and the media is full of the first anniversary of Katrina. There is plenty again to worry about. The range of possible misfortune is once again on the lips of politicians and pontificators. So I pick up the Collins book, and read his sensationalized versions of the Jamestown flood, the Galveston storm, and the Coconut Grove Fire. I discover new events of terror including the school fire at Our Lady Of the Angels in Chicago, and the Great Nashville Train Wreck. And once again I'm enthralled by the gruesome imagery, and the cruel twists of fate.

Perhaps the function of these disaster tales is to remind me not to take things for granted. When I am once again mired in the the drudgery of daily maintenance and obligatory tasks of life, all I need to do is revist this genre of misery and I can once again feel happy and fortunate about the things I have. Somehow reading these stories makes me feel more connected to humanity in a way that pledging allegiance to the flag, shopping at Walmart, or following a sports team never really could.

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