Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Decline and Fall of the American Empire (Part One)

Gibbon wrote that the decline of the Roman Empire was caused by the loss of civic virtue and rise in laziness among Roman citizens.

Today, some people wonder if our own civilization faces a similar decline. Scholars have weighed in on both sides of the argument.

However, given that there are finite resources in the world, and we are spending a lot of ours pushing eight-foot tall inflatable christmas snowglobes, I think we're in trouble.

Too Horrible For Hollywood Halloween

Earlier today, I decided I needed a break and turned on the TV. Flipping channels, I came across a documentary on HBO called Chernobyl Heart. It's about the health of children in Belarus, and how they have been effected by the aftermath of Chernobyl. The film won the 2005 Academy Award for best short documentary, but this was the first time I'd seen it.

I was nine years old in 1986, when the Chernobyl reactor disaser happened. About the same age as a lot of the kids in the documentary. The Chernobyl plant is in Ukraine, but it's in the far southern part of Ukraine, and the former Soviet Republic of Belarus is downwind. In the end, Belarus got a lot more radiation from the disaster.

A few statistics: Belarus has about 10 million people. 22% of its land area is considered too contaminated to live in. In 1986, there were 2.2 million people living in that area. Today there are still 1.5 million people living in the contaminated zone. Today, in all of Belarus, 15-20% of babies are born healthy. Think about that. 80-85%* of children are BORN with a serious health problem. This figure does not include diseases like thyroid cancer (now common) which do not develop until years later. (See the end of this post for sources of this information)

It's Halloween weekend. I like horror movies, and I've been using Tivo to record a lot of them over the last couple weeks. None of the monster movies that Hollywood has cooked up come close to the horror I felt as the camera crew in Chernobyl Heart just walked through the pediatric ward in a hospital in Gomel, the most affected region of Belarus.

We watch horror movies because at some level it is fun to be scared when we know there is no real danger. Horror movies give audiences a jolt of adrenaline, of excitement, of fear that that most people do not experience in their everyday lives. But almost always, by the end of the movie, the monster is destroyed, the virtuous have been saved, and the danger has been purged from the world(At least until the sequel).

Hollywood monsters may crawl out of some dark, hidden corner of the world, be created by a mad scientist, or be remmnants of some ancient, forgotten evil. But the monster, the freak, always comes from some place, some situation beyond the boundaries of the everyday world. The monsters come out of the darkness, and the heroes push them back in, out of the circle of light that is cizilization.

In Belarus, the monster attacked in 1986. The monster is buried in a giant concrete sarcophagus. (By the way, the sarcophagus was designed to last 20-30 years, and built in a hurry. That was 19 years ago.) But the monster's curse still haunts the people of Belarus. Fear lurks not in the haunted castle, but in the maternity ward, in a country where 3 of 4 children are born with a serious medical problem.

There ARE heroes in this story. The staff of the Chernobyl Children's Project, who raise money for pediatric care in Belarus and try to get children out of the most radioactive zones. Dr. William Novick, whose foundation sends surgical teams to Belarus to perform heart operations on children with techniques and equipment not available in the former USSR. And the thousands of doctors, nurses, and caregivers in Belaruse's orphanages and hospitals, who fight an endless losing battle every day. Their battle will not be finished at the end of a two hour movie. It will not be finished for generations.

Chernobyl Heart is currently in rotation on HBO and HBO Signature.

*Statistics math corrected 10/30. See comments.

HBO: Chernobyl Heart documentary site
Chernobyl Children's Project International
International Children's Heart Foundation International NGO site
Wikipedia: Belarus

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Reflections: Raindrops in a Puddle

Over the weekend, I stood in the rain, waiting for a bus. I watched raindrops fall into a puddle, and thought:

In the briefest of moments, a raindrop hits the water and disappears into the puddle, sending a ripple racing out across the surface. Try to imagine how the raindrop feels just before the moment of impact. Racing down from the clouds, speeding towards an enormous, unavoidable collision. That raindrop is stressed. Anxiety city, man.

There have been far too many times in my life when I have felt like that plummeting raindrop. Alone, afraid, unable to change course, speeding ahead towards an explosive collision.

This is a mind-bogglingly foolish and short-sighted attitude. The raindrop is afraid because it falls from the clouds towards an unknown surface. But the moment of impact is not the end. Rather, it is the raindrop's finest hour. The raindrop falls alone from the clouds- it cannot touch any other drops, except by pure chance. But at the moment it hits the puddle, that raindrop sends out ripples that pass over everydrop of water in the puddle.

It is in the moment of collision, the point of greatest stress, when we have the greatest opportunity to make a difference, to change the lives of those around us- for good or ill. There's an old saying that the Chinese character for "crisis" is the character for "danger" combined with "opportunity." Danger and opportunity-- those are what the raindrop faces as it makes contact. The opportunity to create change only comes when we ourselves are prepared to change-- the raindrop can't make ripples without hitting the water.

And just in case I haven't beat this metaphor into the ground yet, the moment of contact with the puddle is not the end of the raindrop's existence. After falling, the raindrop joins the puddle, from which it eventually flows into a river and down to the sea, where it evaporates into a cloud and the whole cycle begins anew. The few seconds of falling are only a tiny, tiny, part of the total existence of that water droplet.

But it's hard to remember being part of the sea when you're falling from the clouds.

So step back. Sometimes, perspective is everything.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Mindbender of the Week: The Gospel of Anne Rice

Sources, see:
Newsweek: The Gospel According To Anne
NY Daily News: Rice's latest novel: Interview with a Messiah

The new issue of Newsweek reports that Anne Rice, famed author of sensual horror novels, has turned over a new leaf. Raised as a Catholic but long since lapsed, Ms. Rice has announced that she has been born again. Rice told Newseek that she has promised "that from now on I would write only for the Lord." and that her next novel is not about vampires or witches, but rather a tale of the early childhood of Jesus during the years his family spent in Egypt, following the outline of the Gospel of Luke.

There are plenty of cheap jokes to be made about Anne Rice's conversion, and other bloggers have made them. What interests me is the subculture that her earlier novels have helped spawn. The vampires Louis and Lestat are role models for a generation of Goth youth. Anne Rice is regarded as something of a prophet in those circles, and her New Orleans residence was a prime stop on the many pre-Katrina "vampire tours" of the city.

In 2005, we in the United States live in an era which increasingly frowns on any kind of deviance from the norms set by the anglo-saxon evangelical christian movement. The gothic subculture has provided an escape valve for many young people who don't fit into the WASP-defined norms of suburban America. It's a way for teens to define themselves, even if only by choosing to join a group that opposes many of the beliefs of their parents.

What happens to that Gothic vampire subculture now? Will the kids in the black eyeliner and combat boots declare Anne Rice a traitor to the cause and march on? Or will the November publication of Christ The Lord: Out of Egypt spark a mass conversion? Will we see a new Anne Rice-inspired post-goth christian subculture emerge?

Only time will tell.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Reflections: My feet are already wet

I was out hiking last week, during the torrential northeast rains. Don't ask, I just really needed to get out of the house and into nature for awhile. At one point I was walking uphill through the woods on a trail that was rapidly turning into a creekbed. I reached a spot where the trail had ponded out. No way to go around. So I waded through. Had on good boots, but still got my feet wet. The rain got worse. The trail I was on was a loop- fastest way back to my car was to keep going forward.

Later, I had to cross another flooded area. I started to look for a way around- best thing I saw was a fallen tree that went most of the way across the water. Slippery, but passable. Then I thought "Why bother? My feet are already wet." And I waded straight through.

No one in this life is spotless. Everyone has problems, everyone makes mistakes. None of us have "dry feet." But so often, we try to deny those problems and procceed under the assumption that our lives should be perfect somehow.

I'm a klutz. If I had tried to walk down that slippery fallen tree, I probably would have fallen in and gotten wet head to toe, by taking a risky path in order to keep my feet dry.

But my feet were already wet. And I recognized that, and accepted it. And found a quicker path through the flood.

Now, if only I could do that with the rest of my life- accept that I'm not perfect (dry feet) and plow ahead without contortions, I would be better off.

Thus ends today's...whatever.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Post 1.0

So I set this blogger account wow, almost a year ago. Played around with it a little bit, but never "opened." Then this week I decide that I actually have some things to say and I log into blogger for the first time in months. I didn't even think my template would still be here, but it was and I also find more than 20 comments on my prototype post from online friends who missed me during a period when I was AWOL from the online world.

*sniff*sniff* You guys are swell.

I will be experimenting with format and topics for a few weeks, so do not expect anything consistent right away...I'll announce a formal "opening" at some point, but I know some people are already watching this space.