November 20, 2008
We felt so safe there
Maybe it's just me, but it feels like mortality is in the air.|
"We had a view, trees, a yard and neighbors," retired school bus driver Linda Pogacnik, 63, told a Los Angeles Times reporter about her Sylmar home, crying uncontrollably. "We felt so safe there. It was a perfect place for an old retired woman."
I'm sorry, but I don't like thinking of 63 as old. I also don't like thinking that "we felt so safe there" is as relevant to me as it is to a mobile home community destroyed by the Sayre fire. Does that mean I'm in denial?
A couple of days before the fires began, at 10 in the morning, you would have found me in my office on the floor beneath my desk, holding on to it for a surprisingly long three minutes during the regionwide drill meant to prepare us for a magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Afterward, my colleagues and I spent a half hour calmly trying to understand what it would be like to sleep in parks for two weeks along with thousands of our neighbors, and to experience 10,000 aftershocks during the year that followed, and to live in a city without electricity or transportation or any of the other urban services we usually don't think about depending on.
The evening of the day of the drill, I went to my book club. The book this month was "The Teammates," by David Halberstam, the story of Red Sox veterans Dom DiMaggio, 84, and Johnny Pesky, 82, driving down from Massachusetts to visit their dying teammate, Ted Williams, for the last time. We book club members, men in our 50s and 60s, usually love a rousing conversation about the text at hand, but that night the conversation was about politics, food, the fine points of Yiddish curse words -- anything but the Halberstam book. Afterward, on e-mail, we acknowledged the reason why: our discomfort at confronting our own forthcoming decrepitude and demise.
The week before, I had lunch with a college friend, a baby boomer like me, who's been battling a chronic disease since its onset at age 30. Some years since then have been bad; others, more endurable. Right now, he's doing OK.
I asked him how he had come to handle the fragility of his well-being and the uncertainty that his illness has plagued him with. His answer: "Everything is a percentage. You have an X percent chance of a recurrence over the next Y years. You have a Z percent chance of being alive from today until whenever. The percentages are never zero and never a hundred. And when they're lopsided, you never know what side of them you'll be on. It's all about the odds." He paused, had a sip of espresso, and went on. "It's all about the odds for everyone, isn't it? Being sick just makes you realize it more."
A week later, while the wildfires raged, I went to Thousand Oaks to give a talk along with Norman Corwin. In case you don't know the name, he's a giant from the golden age of radio; his best-known work is probably "On a Note of Triumph," a celebration of VE day that FDR asked him to write. He also wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for "Lust for Life."
Norman is 98 1/2 years old. His father lived to be 110; his older brother Emil, 105, retired from his job at the Food and Drug Administration only a few years ago, at 95. Though Norman uses a walker, his mind works better than mine, and he is definitely a snappier dresser than me. In the green room, he told me he's thinking about writing a screenplay about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.
Maybe it's just the luck of good genes that landed the Corwin clan on the right side of the odds. Maybe it's simply bad luck that visited a 50-foot wall of flame on Linda Pogacnik's mobile home. Maybe the only thing standing between my college friend's remission and a relapse is a dumb roll of the dice. Maybe the only way you can put down roots in California is with the thought that every place has its own risks, its tornadoes and hurricanes and lightning, that driving on the freeway is even more dangerous than living on a fault line. Maybe the only way that a bunch of guys who are a decade or less short of three-score-and-ten can discuss a book about friendship and dying is just to ignore the dying part, and to soak in our own friendship.
Denial has a bad rap. I'm all for taking precautions, whether it's cutting out trans-fats or keeping a flashlight in your night table drawer. But it can be debilitating to wonder whether your story will be cut short by a rogue cell, or be burnt by an errant ember. Yes, it can be rewarding to live each day as though it will be your last; it reminds you to smell the roses. But can't it be just as therapeutic to imagine that you'll live, and live well, forever?
It would be cruel, and useless, to remind a couple at the altar that half of all marriages fail. It would be debilitating to think each morning about the actuarial odds of making it through the day. Why would you write "FADE IN" at the beginning of a screenplay, if the chances of making it to "FADE OUT," let alone to production and release, were as bleak for you as they are for every other dreamer on the planet?
In "Sunday Morning," a poem I love, Wallace Stevens wrote, "Death is the mother of beauty." It's true: The precariousness of existence is what makes Being so beautiful. We don't appreciate what doesn't die. But it's also true that there's little joy in understanding that life is all a numbers game, a statistical scam in which we are the pigeons. It may be realistic to realize that what befell Linda Pogacnik last week can be our lot next week. But it's way sweeter to imagine that what happened to the Corwins can still happen to any of us.