The radio was often on in my office in those pre-internet days. I scribbled on a notepad perched on my lap with my feet up on the thick wooden desk, distractedly solving solving some super important chocolate bar advertising emergency when the announcement came through the speakers.
I ran upstairs to inform my account team about the first American war in my adult lifetime.
“They started fighting,” I said, fighting back tears. “They started firing missiles in the gulf.”
There was a brief moment of silence and then, as if I had said “we’re thinking about ordering pizza now,” the account director commanded us back to work.
I couldn’t think about work. All I could think about was the tragedy two oceans away, the excited newscasters yammering about Scud missiles, the friends in the military, the people who might die that night.The indifference of my coworkers was profoundly wounding. I felt disgusted. I felt alone.
And of course, the great chocolate bar advertising problems of the world felt wholly insignificant.
It’s all come back to me this week, as the tragedy in Japan has unfolded. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be so stupidly busy, so absorbed with corporate “emergencies” that it seems like we don’t have time for the world. This time however, I’m the one insisting, let’s get back to work. Not because I don’t care, but because I care too much. Again, I’m scared to talk about tragedy above a whisper.
For the past few days, I have alternated between being riveted and being too horrified to watch, drawn in by the click-grabbing headlines even as I try and talk myself out of reading further.
I want to look. I can’t look. I should read this. I don’t want to read this. I need to do more. I need to look less. I should talk to my kids about it. Leave them out of this, they’re little. There’s more breaking news now. Hey, there’s a cooking show on now! And what’s that old Charlie Sheen up to today?
Of course I scan the news. I can’t not. This is too big. Even if I don’t last long.
When I do dare to click through the apocalyptic website headlines (seriously, don’t even go near the Huffington Post if you want to protect your sanity), I am compelled to scan for the good news and lalalalalaaaa I can’t heeeeear youuuuuuu through the rest. Was that one man rescued? Did an expert downgrade the nuclear warning? That one photo of the man in the white protective suit scanning a toddler for radiation–was the toddler okay? He tested negative, right? I look for words like no imminent threat and seems to be safe.
God I need to see them.
But then, in every article, after the one story of hope and triumph, the one quote from the one optimistic expert, the article always ends with something too horribly tragically terrifying for me to stay with it too long.
Nuclear crisis? For fuck’s sake.
I click away quickly and maybe I make another donation. Maybe I scan through comedians on Twitter.
My own twitter stream is more schizophrenic than usual these days, as I bounce between petty annoyances and pop culture commentary My head can’t go to Japan too often. It can’t go to the what would I do if I were there right now? Because then I put myself in the shoes of all those people, the ones losing homes, losing towns, losing (oh God) children. The whole town of Natori that’s disappeared. The remaining 50 nuclear reactor workers death marching to work each day. And before that hypothetical becomes to real to bear, I need to lalalalaaaaaa again.
Of course I’m also having post-traumatic 9/11 flashbacks, though then I had no choice but be glued to the TV, watching the estimated death counts climb, because the news was out my front door and seeping in through the wet rolled-up towels under the window. I breathed it in my lungs every day. How could I ignore it?
That day, the world said We Are All Americans.
What do we say today? Are We All Japanese right now? Do I owe them that much in return?
I hug my kids so tightly before bed each night. I sleep restlessly these days. I don’t remember my dreams, but I think there is running.