Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Didn’t that name mean something very different a few days ago? A faraway land with a lot of people and a lot of energy. Mt. Fuji and delicate cherry blossoms in Kyoto. An amazing story of a bitter enemy whose cities we atomized sixty years ago, and who soon after became a charming friend and cultural alter ego. If the land itself remained faraway and storylike, its products mated with us and our vocabulary: Toyota, Sony, Honda, kimono, manga, Miyazaki, Mitsubishi, Pokemon, geisha, hibachi, haiku, samurai, sushi….

And still it’s so, but under a terrible dark, scary, pall. An accident that stays in our periphery, the thought of it never far away, and now Japan means something else: a fragile place, some skinny vulnerable islands, with so many people who have died, and whose survivors must all be stunned, scared, if not in a state of post-traumatic stress disorder to match the trauma that has overtaken Japan.

We’ve had earthquakes, but long ago (San Francisco) or at a far remove from our perceived center (Anchorage). We’ve had other natural disasters—hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, forest fires, even a few volcanic eruptions—that felt like deep wounds. But for national trauma we’d probably have to compare this to 9/11. It’s inexact in its particulars, of course. Ours was inflicted by people and the death toll was small by comparison. But the insult to the national soul, if there was one, seems similar.

So what do we do? We do what we do. Memorize those images: the creepy, insidious video of the tsunami rolling over the farmland, overtaking the orderly patchwork of crops, like chaos devouring civilization. And on the news tonight, gigantic tuna-fishing boats, the size of factories, lying on their sides in the roads of a fishing port. They had been out in the bay. The tsunami dragged them in like a stupid god. And a few people standing here and there, stock-still, trying to comprehend it.

Go on about our business. Watch the TV shows we always watch, speculate on the college basketball tournament, listen to James Taylor, order a coffee and muffin, maybe feel a little grateful, even guiltily grateful, for things like meals and showers. Check out the Times online or NPR for the latest news of the new troubled-sounding Japan. Write about it or write about bluebirds, read about it and read the comics, think about it and lots of other things, fleetingly. Donate money or think about donating money. Go back to the coffee and the email.

Reflect on how it seems our planet could take us or leave us sometimes. Or how, if we’re so smart, isn’t there anything we can do to settle those restless underground tectonic plates? No. Furthermore, the fine print on the ticket says that the planet will not be responsible for…and there’s a whole long list of “acts of God,” including earthquakes and tsunamis.

So we will just have to eat the warranty along with our fellow planetoids.

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