Day 163: What Can Anyone Say?

March 12th, 2011

The scope of what’s happened in Japan is unimaginable. It’ll be days, perhaps weeks, before we have a real sense of it.

The impulse will be to go to statistics, and the statistics that are beginning to come in are hair-raising.

One-half of the 17,000 people living in the town of Minamisanriku are missing.

One-third of the 74,000 people living in the city of Kesennumaya are missing.

The town of Iwate, with a population of 23,000, has been destroyed.  No one has a count yet.

Wooden Japan, in towns like Natori (pictured) and Sendai is aflame.  Ironically, wooden structures generally seem to have sustained less damage from the earthquake than concrete structures, but were swept away like matchboxes in the tsunami and have gone up like tinder in the gas fires that followed.

The main structure of the nuclear plant at Fukushima exploded, but at the time I’m writing this, no one knows whether the explosion presages a meltdown of the core. Nor can anyone predict what will happen to one other, almost equally compromised, plant.  Officials say they’ll be giving out doses of iodine soon to help ward off thyroid cancer.

That fact seems to me to be almost infinitely sad.  In the aftermath of forces so great they threw thousand-pound shipping containers around like toys, doses of iodine will be passed out.

And yet maybe that’s the best possible response.  Do what’s necessary — do what can be done — as calmly and graciously as possible.

Already, some grocery stores in the less-devastated areas are open.  They’re imposing unofficial daily rationing, selling off only so much of their stock every day to make it last until new supplies can be delivered.  People are queuing up politely, taking what they can get.  There has been not one report of looting or post-quake predation of any kind.

Because so many cell towers went down, two television stations opened their doors to people who waited hours in line for a chance to step before the camera and take thirty seconds or less to send an appeal to the ones they couldn’t find or hadn’t heard from.  Please be safe, they say.  Please get in touch when you can.  No one seems to have exceeded the thirty seconds.

After the Kobe quake, even the Yakuza set up booths and tables to give away food and water. There was no looting. Out of the inestimable horror of this event, perhaps Japan will remind us what can mean to be human, and that Hemingway was right when he defined courage as grace under pressure.

And for what it’s worth, I send them my prayers.

9 Responses to “Day 163: What Can Anyone Say?”

  1. EverettK Says:

    In answer to the title of today’s blog: that’s why I didn’t comment yesterday. I had nothing to say that wasn’t self-obvious. We all live by the grace of [take your favorite pick] god, luck, happenstance, the whim of the universe, or whatever, with no discernible rhyme or reason (as you discussed not to long ago in a blog about ‘luck’). Right now, there are ROUGHLY 140 million births per year and about 60 million deaths per year. That works out to averages of about 380,000 births per day and about 164,000 deaths per day. Day in. Day out. So, it’s not the raw numbers that strike us so (although that’s part of it, because we’re not normally aware of the usual world-wide numbers), or even the unexpectedness. It’s the concentration, abruptness and unselective nature of it, and the pure raw power that Earth can unleash. It’s sad, and it can be depressing. But the uncertainty of life (ie, the certainty of death) is what makes life so precious. NOTE: I’m not trying to minimize or trivialize these disasters. Not in any way. But to truly discuss the emotional reaction to something like this would take something of novel-length, just to get started. Hence, why I didn’t say anything before…

    If I live to a ripe old age, there’s a fair chance (about 10%) that I (and my mess mates) will get to experience something very similar first-hand. I’ve lived all my life in western Oregon. There’s a subduction fault just off the coast identical to that in Japan, and it fires off a HUGE (8.0 to 9.0) quake about every 300-350 years, on average. It’s been 310 years since the last one.

  2. Beth Says:

    “…for what it is worth, I send them my prayers.” Those prayers are worth more than anything else. The world is moving fast to provide the Japanese with food, water, medicine, the basic necessities of life. It is only prayer than can give them the hope that allows them to take the next breath.

    All of those who took their thirty seconds to try and reach someone they love did so in the certainty that the message would be received and all will be well. Now there is the agony of waiting, wondering, and worrying. All the second guessing comes into play and a lot of it will seem ridiculous but it is better to worry about the little things than to think about the one all consuming fear that makes taking the that is too much to face in this moment. People are worrying that perhaps they left the kitchen stove on, or that the sweater they put on their children isn’t warm enough, or that they should have gone to the ATM before the electricity made the machines useless. They are worrying about the little things because the thief in the night who came, instead, on a bright, sunny afternoon may have stolen those who gave their lives meaning.

    Everett, of course the comments people make are obvioius but it is in the commonality of the response that we connect to other human beings. What people are really saying is “there but for the grace of God go I”. That does need to be said to remind ourselves that, at this moment, our problems are as nothing compared to their problems, their profound loss.

    It is interesting that the same comments repeated by people, no matter their culture, are considered banal when used to response to tragedy. Listen to any group of fans after their team has won the Superbowl or the World Series. Everyone who gets a microphone stuck in front of his face says the same thing. The connection to “fandom” lies in the very obvious repetition of the same emotion. No one thinks that’s banal or belaboring the obvious. People, unless they are Tim, aren’t likely to be terribly clever after watching some other person’s life being destroyed by an accident of geography.

    So pray we must because so many of the people who used their 30 seconds on camera today are going to know all to soon that there are some things worse than dying.

  3. EverettK Says:

    Beth: Hence, why I didn’t say anything before. I wasn’t trying to say that no one should say anything, merely that my thoughts and feelings mirrored Tim’s and everyone else’s, and I felt no need to add a “me too” to the comments section, and adding anything beyond (effectively) a “me too” was too likely to be seen as …uncaring?.

    That’s all.

  4. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I think Tim is right. It is hard to take in the kind of devastation that is being pictured. It’s just too hard to imagine. We had a warning where I live, and a lot of us were calling and talking to each other; that’s what gave us succor. the danger here was minimal, and went away, but we all talked about our fears about another earthquake here on the “ring of fire.” Everett, I just got really nervous for you, just as for us living here on the San Andreas fault. The irony is that Japan has always been associated with Zen Buddhism, and now they are personifying that grace. In the end, all we have is each other and the moment.

  5. EverettK Says:

    Lil said: In the end, all we have is each other and the moment.

    Few truer words were ever spoken.

  6. Suzanna Says:

    A woman who has been my hair stylist for the last dozen years or so just moved back to Japan in February. Her two sons live here in California and are in college now. We shared many stories over the years about our kids while I sat in her salon. We talked about our struggles as parents, the hopes we had for our kids, and what it was like now that they were finally in college. She moved back to somewhere outside of Tokyo in February because she wanted to be near her ailing elderly mother. My gut feeling is that she and her family are safe and sound. I hope I’m right.

    In 2004 a friend of mine was taking her final stroll on the beach in Sri Lanka when the tsunami struck the shore. She didn’t make it.

    I have not been able to watch the news for more than a minute or two. Not because I’m not interested in knowing what’s happening but because I am guarding against my natural tendency to become a depressed weeping mess when I see human suffering on this scale.

    My prayers are with the people of Japan and all those who have loved ones who have been effected by this tragedy.

  7. Phil Hanson Says:

    My brother is in Japan, said the quake was the most intense one he’d ever experienced. He was lucky to be in an Internet cafe in Tokyo when the shaking started; the building survived, as did he. That’s the good news.

    The bad news is that the destruction was extensive, the loss of life immense. It will take years, if not decades, for Japan to recover from this, and it seems unlikely that it will ever come back to being the economic powerhouse it was before the catastrophe. The quake is not the only reason why this is so, but it’s a big part of it. This is not to say that Japan will never recover, only that it will look very much different when it does.

  8. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Once again, I’ve stayed away from commenting further because I pretty much said everything that made sense to me in the original post, and God knows that was little enough.

    And despite what I said about my prayers, at times like these — with the cores of those reactors quite possibly on the verge of meltdown, it’s hard for me to believe that there’s anything anywhere that hears or cares about prayers. As I said on the other response thread, today I saw little kids who had been exposed to radiation being wanded by guys in huge protective suits. You know what? Fuck that. Tear down the fucking cathedrals, tax the churches, and declare the earth a god-free zone. And somebody go talk to the Muslims. Take god out of the equation and world peace gets a lot easier, and I can’t seen any reason to honor, much less believe in, a god that allows this. Mysterious ways, my ass.

  9. EverettK Says:

    Amen, Tim. Well… you know what I mean.

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