Disasters Both Outside and Within

I’ve recently read Kenneth Goldsmith’s Seven American Deaths and Disasters (after watching the author spar with Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report), a book I found profoundly moving–a reaction I hadn’t expected, but probably could have predicted.

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The book is a series of transcribed radio broadcasts (with a few exceptions), as the events are unfolding, of crucial blows to the American psyche: the assassination of President Kennedy, then his brother Robert, John Lennon’s murder, the Challenger disaster, the Columbine massacre, the World Trade Center attacks and the death of Michael Jackson. Virtually anyone reading this book will have experienced living through at least some of these events, if not all (I was in seventh grade when Kennedy was killed).

So the book is a You Are There account of some of the main body blows of recent American history, but it also creates an alternate personal history of the reader, too, if he or she is old enough.

The first chapter, of the Kennedy assassination, begins with radio patter of an almost child-like American innocence, a care-free world managed by helpful advertised products: Armour Star turkeys (“government inspected and graded to give your family a very special treat this Thanksgiving”), Falstaff beer (“no deposit, no return cans in handy packs of six”), and the Robert Hall department store (“robes and pajama sets are priced from only $3.97”). In between, songs by the Chiffons (“I Have a Boyfriend”) and Tommy Rowe’s “Hey Everybody” keep the tone light.

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But slowly, breaking news about shots being fired at a Kennedy motorcade in Dallas eventually overwhelm the radio station’s normal proceedings, and this news grows ever alarming: Kennedy has been shot at, Kennedy has been hit, Kennedy’s wounds are minor, Kennedy’s wounds are grave, Kennedy is dead. Though of course I knew what was coming since I lived through this national trauma, I found myself wishing certain reports were indeed true, that Kennedy’s wounds were minor, manageable, and because of this need to deny what could not be denied (an impulse that surprised me as I read), the transcribed radio report created an almost unbearable tension.

Perhaps I felt this way because the Kennedy assassination revealed to me the wider world of adult tragedy, the shocks that often come without warning. And in some ways, the willful innocence of the country’s popular culture was lost that day as well.

When the on-the-scene radio report of Robert Kennedy Jr.’s assassination kicks in, there’s an odd emotional quality to the reporting, a sort of Can this really be happening again? tone that seems to imply that history’s lesson hasn’t completely been learned. Less than three years after the death of his older brother, this death almost hits harder, because it illustrates that the first assassination wasn’t an anomaly, but another step in a horrific future business-as-usual (Martin Luther King, Jr. had also been assassinated months earlier).

And the litany of disasters follows: John Lennon’s murder appears to cap off any last remaining promise of the Sixties, and the Challenger explosion crumples the country’s assumptions of technological superiority.

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The chapter on Columbine is perhaps the most powerful: a transcription of a teacher’s 911 call as the killing unfolds at the high school, and it captures a chilling, head-shaking sense of helplessness and disbelief at such carnage in such an unlikely (then) setting.

After the grim on-the-scene news reports of the World Trade Center attacks (attacks that also tore down America’s willful belief in our safety and invulnerability), we come to the rather jaded reports of Michael Jackson’s death. We have become so inured to tragedy that the commentators can argue about whether Jackson was really the King of Pop or not.

Goldsmith’s book of transcribed tragedies would be a difficult read if it weren’t also a compelling secret history of the country, and of the reader. As individuals, we have all had to absorb terrible news and events in our lives, and these radio reports of disasters “as they happened” captures the emotional shock and disbelief, the hopeless bargaining with reality to return to normality that we undergo when our personal or family lives go kablooie.

So, if all of this book is transcribed reporting, then how does Goldsmith get to be the “author”? I’m reminded of the work of Studs Terkel, whose transcribed interviews in such books as Working and Hard Times are masterpieces of revelation: voices we haven’t heard, only brought together through Terkel’s efforts, and shaped into an overarching narrative. Or Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony, a reclamation of late 19th century and early 20th century court documents that reveal stories of despair and violence lost to history (see my post on Reznikoff’s book “To Remain a Witness”).

Goldsmith, I think, has done a similar service, taking the disasters that now loom like horrible monuments in our history and bringing back to them the “shock of the new.” It’s not perfect: Goldsmith says he couldn’t, for example, find a contemporaneous report of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death that captured the developing despair of the news. But this still remains one of the best history books I’ve ever read, voices from the past, under great stress, that recapture the immediacy of the present, and that laid bare, by example, the raw emotion of some of my own life’s (much smaller) disasters.

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August 10th, 2013 by admin

Welcome to Wal-Mart

The vast majority of the world in which we live is invisible, I believe. Every object around us was initially conceived and shaped by an unseen complex of synaptic connections in someone’s mind, and nearly every conversation we conduct is guided not so much by the words we speak but by the vast stretch of words we don’t allow ourselves to speak. Everyone we pass by on a sidewalk contains years into decades of memories, feelings and beliefs to which we have no easy access. And for all of us, the past is not some distant country but our next-door neighbor, and an incident from, say, fifteen years ago is the secret force behind a sudden anger or a tender gesture, like the dark matter of the universe tugging at stars.

Perhaps that’s why I still enjoy paging through Studs Terkel’s Working, originally published in 1974. For this book Terkel interviewed a wide range of people about their jobs, what a working day was like for a strip miner, a dentist, a book binder, a piano tuner, a jazz musician, and so on. One of my favorite entries features a hockey player, Eric Nesterenko, who once played for the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Chicago Black Hawks.

Now, hockey is not my game. Whenever I watch I can never follow the damn puck, can only glean its existence by the shifting strategies of the players on the ice. The entire experience feels to me like trying to find a tiny Waldo who’s traveling at warp speed. But reading Nesterenko’s description of what it’s like to hurtle across the ice, I’m willing to reconsider:

“You can wheel and dive and turn, you can lay yourself into impossible angles you never could walking or running. You lay yourself at a forty-five degree angle, your elbows virtually touching the ice as you’re in a turn. Incredible!”

And another point, Nesterenko describes a favorite photo of him playing in a game, and here he shifts from angles and diving to the poetry of the world within:

“I’m leaning into a turn. You pick up the centrifugal forces and you lay in it. For a few seconds, like a gyroscope, they support you. I’m in full flight and my head is turned. I’m concentrating on something and I’m grinning. That’s the way I like to picture myself. I’m something else there. I’m on another level of existence, just being in pure motion. Going wherever I want to go, whenever I want to go. That’s nice, you know. (Laughs softly.)”

Inspired by Working, in 2000 a set of editors released a book that served as an homage and update of Terkel’s book: Gig, Americans Talk About Their Jobs. The folks here include a crime scene cleaner, a video game designer, a plastic surgeon, and a flight attendant (who offers a hilarious account of a flying hamburger). Again, I have my favorite, the very first entry: a Wal-Mart greeter.

I suppose we’ve all walked past a greeter while on the way to our desired shopping experience, and perhaps we’ve all, to be honest, felt a little tug of contempt for the person standing there in that dead-end job, welcoming us as if we were long-lost friends. Well, no longer for me. Because after reading Jim Churchman’s account of his job, I can see past the goofy uniform:

“I guess they gave me the greeter job because they like the way I deal with people. At Wal-Mart, they observe how you work with everybody, even when you’re just stocking or pulling freight. They look to see if you have people skills, to see if you like people.

“And I do like people. I’m a retired educator, I worked as a schoolteacher and principal for a long time and I guess I’m good with folks. I taught school in University City, Missouri—that’s a suburb of St. Louis County—and lots of other places in Missouri and Illinois. I started off in a self-contained classroom and then I went on to become a principal. I got my master’s and then my doctorate in education and I taught fifth and sixth grade for a long time. I liked that a lot. I like kids that age. They’re still pretty nice and don’t know everything yet. I like this job a lot, too.”

If you had given me a typewriter and all eternity, I never would have written the words “Ph.D.” and “Wal-Mart greeter” together. Probably because my imagination is no match for the vast store of secrets the invisible world contains. And Churchman’s surprises don’t stop there. His wife is fighting cancer, and so he keeps his hours to a half day; he plays the guitar, and at times, some of his fellow Wal-Mart colleagues who are also musicians converge at his home for a jam session.

We feel the pull of dark matter’s gravity, and we contain dark matter ourselves, and even a Wal-Mart greeter, with the proper nudge, can alter what we too easily assume about a stranger, even as we head, distracted, for the aisle where a suspiciously inexpensive blouse or baseball glove or table cloth awaits us.

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September 16th, 2010 by admin