Saturday, November 14, 2015

Packaged Terror

After 9/11 we were in a daze, a fog that wouldn’t lift, as if the dust and debris of the towers had spread nationwide. It wasn’t clear at the time whether this was an isolated attack, or the first of many.

As if in answer came the anthrax mailings, about a week or so later. That compounded the daze. It was a strange time, and we were all uneasy.

The terrorists only did a little of the job, you see. They killed a few thousand, traumatized a couple of cities. But to make it a really national event, a global event, that required the media and the government. Each in their own way opportunists, they were—and continue to be—complicit.

We were asked to be vigilant about suspicious packages. At the time, that seemed prudent, almost welcomed. There is such an urge to do something in response to an awful happening. It’s an emotional need. A hunger that must be fed.

It was against this backdrop that I soon found a box hanging from my mailbox. Not in it. Just hanging from it. In a bag.

Never mind that I was no one anyone had ever heard of, living in a small town in the middle of nowhere anyone cared about. One’s own life always seems so much bigger and more important than most lives probably are. We all need to feel important.

The package said it was from my health insurance carrier, which to some less vigilant soul might have seemed fine, but I wasn’t taking “routine” for an answer. I hadn’t asked them for anything. I had no reason to suppose they would send me anything. And we were admonished to be suspicious, so suspicious we were.

After all, only the post office is allowed to put something in my mailbox. And this package wasn’t in the mailbox, just hung from it in a plastic bag, probably by someone willing to dispense anthrax but fearful of prosecution for improper use of a mailbox. That seemed to make sense. The kind of sense that people who live in fear are likely to make. The kind of sense that felt good to me. Never mind the fact that the package probably wouldn’t have fit in the mailbox in the first place, if this manner of delivery wasn’t an outright confession of guilt, it at least had “suspicious package” written all over it.

So I called the health insurance folks to check. “No,” they said. They had not sent it. In fact, the return address was an office that was not even open any more.

Well, that was disturbing.

I wanted to go to the FBI or something. But we had no such office in our tiny town. I wondered if perhaps they had trucks that went town to town, looking for possible anthrax mailings and carting them back to FBI Central. So I went to the post office and asked them. I don’t think they were prepared. The government was prepared to scare us, but not to address our fears.

“Go to the fire department,” they said. I shrugged and did.

They seemed as confused as the post office. They suggested the police department, and off I went.

The policemen puzzled at the box I was carrying and finally one of them said “Come with me.”

So I followed as we walked outside to where some kids were playing basketball in an open area with lots of cement on the ground. The policeman shooed the kids away, taking control of the space for his own clever plan.

“Stand back,” the policeman said, aiming a gun at the box.


I tried to explain that it was anthrax I was worried about, and that a gun seemed the wrong idea.

It was too late. He had shot it.

Fortunately, since we were standing much too close and the kids would have probably never gotten to come back to play, there was no explosion. Nor was there any powder.

We opened the box. It was a catalog.

I called the health insurance company back. “Oh that,” they said with a kind of verbal shrug. “Yeah, maybe they still do catalogs out of that office.”

I worry a lot about terrorism these days, but not always about what the terrorists will do to us. Now I have a new worry: What we’ll do in response to the terror. What we’ll let our government do in our name, just so they can feel good having done something. Seeing that event, and that pointless act, an act so stupid you’d think it was fiction if you hadn’t been there to watch it, it was easier to understand how we started a pointless war.

And I don’t know what’s weirder—that he did that or that I stood by and let him. It was weird what they did, but it was also weird that I just went along with it. Looking back, I guess it was more caught up in that societal daze than I had realized.

But it’s who we are, we human beings, all of us. We’re easily afraid, and then more easily corralled. We need to know our propensities, and to recognize when they’re overtaking us, lest the simple option of exercising sanity elude us at the most critical of times.

Author’s Notes: If you got value from this post, please Share it.

I never got around to telling this story when it first happened, but in light of recent events in Paris, and my worry about the selfish manipulation of politics that will inevitably follow, I decided perhaps it was finally time. After more than a dozen years, one or two details might be off in small ways, but it’s the moral that matters, that we’re vulnerable in times like this—not just to terrorists, but to our own terrors and to those who would exploit them.

For more on the politics of preying on fear, I heartily recommend Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Passing of the Salmon

“I have some bad news,” the bartender tells me, just recently, in fact. I prepare myself for the worst. She’s getting to know me quite well and probably actually knows the things that matter to me, I realize.

I don’t drink, mind you, but I’m there several times a week. I drink diet coke and ask them to take their ahi tuna salad and substitute salmon. I’m pretty regular about that. It’s not typical bar food, I suppose, but it suits me.

I like salmon. I eat it a lot. I have a couple ounces for breakfast. And it’s a common thing for me to eat when I eat out.

“I have some bad news,” she says again, making sure she has my attention, and that I’m prepared. “They’re changing the menu. There’s not going to be any more salmon.”

I am stunned. I stare at her in anguish. It’s what she expected, and she seems sad. She knew this wouldn’t sit well. But I elaborate.

“The salmon were going away anyway,” I explain. “I always expected that. They’ll be extinct. And often when I eat salmon, I think, I’m really going to miss this. I just didn’t expect it so soon, and for this reason.”

There are still salmon in the world. That’s good at least. But she’s right that I’ll be sad when I come to the restaurant. Still, maybe it’s a wake-up call. Practice. The salmon aren’t quite gone, like the rest of the ecology. Climate change mostly, though we’re fishing out the oceans anyway, and not taking very good care of anything else.

I expect mankind itself to go extinct inside of 20 years. It’s not going to be pretty. Maybe if we started saying it out loud now, it would hit us in time to do something.

I’m going to miss the salmon, when it happens for real.

And soon after that, humanity itself.

Though whatever’s left probably won’t miss us.

Author's Note: I attended a Cary Tennis writing workshop this last weekend. This is one of the stories I wrote. The writing prompt was:
Visualize something you really love. Use the phrase “I'm going to miss you.”

Postscript: In August 2022, this article appeared: What’s Behind Chinook and Chum Salmon Declines in Alaska?. In March 2023, another appeared: California cancels salmon fishing season as population dwindles due to drought: “It's devastating”. I feel like my 20-year timeline is on track, and not just because of these stories. It's very upsetting.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Martian Unjustly Triumphs Over Gravity

Author's Note: To clarify, this essay was written and posted Wednesday, September 9, 2015, before The Martian reached theatres, and certainly before I ever saw it. I hear it's due out October 2. I hope and expect it will be excellent, and yet...

I know it's a little early in the game, but I want to be the first to complain that Matt Damon won is going to win the Academy Award for best actor for his portrayal of Mark Watney in The Martian when Sandra Bullock didn't win for her portrayal of Ryan Stone in Gravity.

Oh, it isn't that I didn't won't enjoy his performance. He's a great actor. But The Martian is such a brilliant movie with such a strong story line, that I'm pretty sure I could have won the Academy Award myself had I been cast in the role.

In fact, I came away from reading The Martian with the distinct impression that while, yes, this character is pretty amazing with his ability to come up with good ideas and do back-of-the-envelope calculations, what really gets him through the ordeal is his sense of humor. His teammates who left him behind seem like smart folks, but I bet they would not have survived a similar ordeal because they seem to lack this critical attribute. And this core survival skill, humor, is carried in the character's language, in the words the Mark Watney character would say, no matter who played the part.

I'm not saying Damon is bad at delivering lines. He's great at that, in fact. It's just that to play the character of Mark Watney well, it just isn't necessary to be all that great. The lines themselves exude greatness and the Oscar for best screenplay rightly acknowledges that. But Damon's chief contribution to this movie isn't his performance but his box office appeal.

By contrast, Bullock really took Gravity from a few bleak lines and some clever special effects and turned it into a personal human drama through the sheer force of her performance. Hers was an Oscar well-earned, yet never realized.

Given time, others will surely join me in acknowledging this grave injustice. And the Academy is increasingly well-known for its biases and blunders, I suppose, so maybe this isn't that much of a surprise. But I just wanted to be first to defend what's still a really fine performance by Bullock, and to say that Damon would have done do well to graciously correct the injustice by sharing his award with her in his acceptance speech.

As I said, it's still early in the game. The coming future seems all too obvious, and yet it's not yet written, so there's still time to break the cycle. Perhaps this time it will be different.