stories, loss, and the power of what needs be done

When I talk about the Whoniverse, one of the things I tend to talk about it how it frames heroes and heroism. It’s all about the ordinary (all those shop girls and queer boys), who have a tremendous amount to sacrifice (e.g., their lives), and the extraordinary (like Jack and the Doctor) who have been deprived of the more obvious means of sacrifice. It’s one of the things I really love about the Whoniverse, even though it’s hard. I love it because because it takes a common trope and bends it; I love it because it speaks, effectively I think, to our societal tendency to overuse the word hero; and I love it because I’m wired for tragedy.

At least in narratives. Fictional narratives.

It’s kind of different when big, real, terrifying, impossible to miss tragedies are actually happening in a manner relentless, ongoing and actually beyond the previous scope of our imaginings.

So, if you’re still in a place where you’re actively able to engage the news, it seems like one of the only things I can do, beyond getting out my wallet, is to encourage you to read stuff about ordinary people, doing heroic things.

Miki Endo was a 25-year-old who worked in the Crisis Management Department in Minami Sanriko. Her voice led people to safety in the face of the tsunami wave. She died doing her job.

While we don’t know the exact numbers of workers remaining at the Fukushima Daiishi Nuclear Plant (numbers have fluctuated between 50 and 180), they are undoubtedly putting their lives at risk, if not this minute, then this month or this week or this year; radiation is funny like that.

Last night, I caught one of those non-scientific polls on the CNN website. It asked whether you’d be willing to risk your life the way those workers are. It made me so angry. Not, actually, because it had simplified the matter to a short, trite, and unscientific query, but because it is absurd to think you know what you would do in a moment like that.

No matter how much you’ve thought about it, no matter the degree to which your job or other circumstances of your life may require you to think about it, no matter how wired for tragedy you are in your fictional habits or whatever else, there are some questions we never know how we’ll answer until they come to us. I’ve faced some of the smaller quandaries on that continuum, and they were nothing like I could have expected.

I haven’t, in regard to all this tragedy and horror in Japan, been particularly calm. I am, as previously noted here and elsewhere, one of those people who had a childhood shaped by our collective nuclear imagination. We didn’t get a color TV until the late 80s; my father resisted the law (and fought with our building management) that forced us to have a smoke detector in our apartment — in both cases, he was concerned about the radiation.

Until today, I’ve always viewed that as part of the many frustrating, sometimes alarming, eccentricities that surrounded my childhood. But today I remembered that my father, born before WWII, knew the world before we split the atom.

The habits of fear from my nuclear childhood are not due to my father’s eccentricities or paranoias that often made the world of my childhood seem both cruel and arbitrary. They are due to the fact that he was a twelve-year-old boy and in love with television and radio and the idea of soldiers when the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And he, of course, just lived in New Jersey, in a perfectly safe life, in a blue-collar seaside town where his father was a shoemaker. If you read the comments here, or on my LJ blog, you’ve seen comments from people whose parents didn’t grow up in New Jersey, but instead lost friends due to the radiation that resulted from the those bombings my father listened to on the radio. It makes all the terror of my American 1980s seem absurd and crass, even as it makes it make sense.

All of this is why I’m so invested in fiction, because of the way it intertwines with non-fiction, because of the way non-fiction gradually morphs over time, becoming our myths, our lies, our stories, our fictions that ultimately, in times like these, force us back to the non-fiction truths from whence they came.

These stories, these truths, tell us heroes are real. And ordinary. And pay terrible prices, not because of what suits the story, or because the audience might be wired for tragedy, but because of what needs done.

The Red Cross | Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières | ShelterBox

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