Yes, it was an exciting week for fans of late night television: Conan vs. Leno vs. the snarky Jimmy Fallon, with Letterman rubbing his hands and cackling in the wings while everyone else in the peanut gallery threw rotten tomatoes at the inept giant, NBC. Given that I don't watch any of those shows, none of this matters much to me -- who's right, who's wrong, who got dissed, or who "wins" in the end. All I want from this clusterfuck is to have those five soon-to-be-empty hours on NBC each week fill up with new scripted comedies and dramas. Well, that and see Jeff Zucker walk the NBC/Comcast plank, then plunge back into the obscurity from which he came...
But considering the real-world events of the past few days, I've got nothing to say about TV, the movies, or the Industry this week. Today, I wander way off the Hollywood reservation.
In the long run, the meek may indeed inherit the earth, but until then it seems they’ll just keep getting crushed -- literally.
Last Monday night, the PBS Newshour ran a ten minute segment on Haiti. After suffering through decades of violently abusive dictatorships and natural disasters, the people of this island nation were finally beginning – just beginning – to emerge from their long, dark tunnel of pain. After a terribly destructive hurricane killed 800+ people in 2008, UN peacekeepers from Brazil (troops experienced in dealing with vicious urban violence endemic to the favelas of their native country) helped quell the rampant street gang activity and stabilize the political situation. New economic policies had attracted foreign investment, reopening long-shuttered factories and creating jobs for thousands of desperate Haitians, among them a young woman featured in the piece. In those ten minutes Monday evening, she became the symbol for the rebirth of Haiti; twenty years old, pretty, with a shy smile full of life and hope. Working at her sewing machine in a garment factory, she – like her country -- seemed headed for a future brighter than had ever seemed possible.
This wasn’t some puff-piece claiming all was hunky-dory in Haiti. The report delineated many serious problems still afflicting the Haitian society and economy, problems that even several thousand garment industry jobs couldn’t possibly solve. As the premier of Haiti told the camera: “We just want to get out of misery to get into poverty.” That’s how bad it’s been for so long in Haiti. But at least now things were looking up – and at long last, the nightly television news had something good to report amid the steady drumbeat of blood, death, and destruction.
In my home, turning on the Toob for the six o’clock news signals the lighting of the drinking lamp, at which point a healthy shot of whiskey slides into the bottom of a glass, followed by a little water. This moment marks the end of the productive portion of my day – as the sun splashes into the Pacific, it’s time to put the down the pick-and-shovel and relax. Given the grim nature of the news these days, it’s easier to take with the pleasant glow of alcohol, but this -– some good news, for a change -- was like a double-shot of whiskey, lulling me into believing that our world just might be turning away from the abyss.
Maybe there really was reason for hope, after all.
They say there's no fool like an old fool. I forgot the one lesson modern life beats into us with the repetitive insistence of a jackhammer -- good news rarely arrives without another big shoe dropping shortly thereafter, often with the flat, deadly thud of a mortar round slamming home. Less than 24 hours after watching this nice little piece on Haiti, a monster rose up from the bowels of the earth to stomp the living shit out of this hapless island, crushing countless thousands of people who were just trying to get through another hard day in the Third World.
So much for hope.
Earthquakes are a part of life here in California. Small temblors rattle our windows with regularity, pointed reminders that Something’s Brewing down below, adding a cold shiver of reality to the sepia-tinted stories of The Great Quake and subsequent fires that leveled San Francisco in 1906, then destroyed much of Long Beach less than thirty years later. In a more recent five year span, both San Francisco and LA were bitch-slapped by lethal quakes that did horrendous damage. By now, everybody out here over the age of 20 has had to face what it really means to live under a tectonic Sword of Damocles. At any moment – ten years from now, tomorrow morning, or before I finish typing this sentence – The Big One will hit with no warning whatsoever, shaking our world to pieces, turning everything we know upside-down, and bringing an immediate halt to life as we know it. We live with the knowledge, buried under deep layers of denial, that what happened last Tuesday in Haiti will happen here, sooner or later, and that it will be very ugly indeed. But denial is a powerful thing, a natural anesthetic against the inevitable horrors of our shared reality, allowing us to go about our days pretending that everything’s fine.
We evolved in a dangerous world where dealing with the here and now – that lion right over there – had a greater survival value than worrying about tomorrow. Although we’ve advanced a bit since coming down out of the trees, with a system of social safety nets (tattered and straining though they may be at the moment), it’s still our basic nature to live day by day. That’s what those Haitians were doing down in the sunny Caribbean, trying to turn their blighted lives around one day at a time, slowly nursing a dysfunctional society back to some semblance of stability and health. But now – and for a long time to come -- that’s all over. Another biblical plague has descended upon them, the full fury of which none of us who aren't actually there can fully grasp. It’s back to basics, now. First they have to survive the blunt force of this massive trauma, and save as many lives as possible before the ugly task of rebuilding can begin. They have a long road to travel before reaching the state of misery everybody considered “normal” before Tuesday’s quake.
I don’t know what these desperately poor people ever did to deserve such a brutally stiff backhand from whatever passes for “God” in this world. Not that I’m much of a believer, mind you – but if I was before this quake, I sure as hell wouldn’t be now. What kind of “God” could look down on that beaming young woman at her sewing machine -– and all her fellow Haitians -- then decide that what they really needed was a good Old Testament smiting?*
As the week dragged on, the unfolding horror in Haiti screamed out from the television every night. Amid this tsunami of tragedy, I kept thinking about that young woman I'd seen on the Newshour segment Monday evening. You sent money, I sent money, we all sent money -- and that money will certainly help in the days and weeks to come -- but right now I just can't shake her image from my head. She was so happy then, so full of hope. So alive.
I wonder where she is now.
* Nor do I think for one second that America’s favorite religious pinhead, Pat Robertson, has a fucking clue...