Wednesday, January 16, 2008

On Safety and Fear

S___ and I were playing the hookster last week, meeting some friends in Georgetown to get some kabobs for lunch. Window shopping on our way there, we heard a loud steam whistle start to sound. It's a sound that you generally have no reference for, but maybe you've seen movies with old steam trains. This was amplified and didn't take breaths.

When I worked at the University, I volunteered to be the office fire marshal. Part of this job, in addition to leading my coworkers to safety in Virginia with my backpack full of water and fruit rollups, was helping run the "shelter-in-place" drill. When there was an emergency that required everyone to clear the quads and run into the buildings, the huge steam whistle on top of Healy Hall would sound and the fire marshals would run outside to ward everyone in. This was necessary because while everyone knows what to do in a fire drill (run outside!), the steam whistle had just been installed and no one knew what it meant when it sounded (run inside!).

In theory, it would go off due to belltower sniper, dirty bomb, poison gas cloud, etc. When it sounded last week, it could be heard all the way down M street and no one knew what it meant. I tensed a little, since I knew it was either a drill or something horrible, and I contemplated pulling S___ into a store and leaving everyone else on the street to die. Then something else took over- there were no police cars blazing down the street, no explosions, no one falling to the ground clutching roses. The part of my brain that has been trained to be afraid lost out to feeling safe.

I know that's bullshit and maybe this actually makes me less safe. I'm sure there are survival stories that could be thrown at me of people who were prepared, followed their training, and lived to tell it. Those are riveting stories and I'm sure they're true, but damn I bet they're statistically insignificant. I read my environment that day and my monkey brain said "safe" no matter how scared and prepared that steam whistle is meant to have made me. I know in Iraq some bases have signs that say "Complacency Kills" on the gate to the outside but that's Iraq and I refuse to walk around my city, on my way to getting a lunch special at Moby Dick, and put my senses on a war footing.

Sometimes I feel like we're doomed by our frozen evolution to not be able to step outside our tribal instincts. My monkey brain wants to see the same hundred faces, to know their names and their proclivities, to trade in good faith and mete out punishment to those who break it. Too many strange faces inflicted on people who are already cut off behind single family homes and car windows, suddenly you find yourself railing against the day laborer depot with that cluster of strangers doing strange things that MUST be criminal. Be afraid, because your tribe is invaded every day. Shut yourself off, become a conservative, fear change and defend your family against all takers and comers.

I understand that, but it ends badly.

The only way I can read the news, or do my job, and not hate everyone is because I'm coming to realize that all anyone wants is to feel safe. The only people I distrust are those that seek to make you afraid to their advantage, whether they're a bully or a priest or a president. I've also been extremely lucky to arrive where I am, with the love I have, without having been knocked around and damaged and distrustful, so I can't blame people for feeling encircled.

I feel safe and I'll always do my best to remember your face and welcome you into my tribe.


Anonymous Jess said...

You guys skipped work and didn't invite MEEEEEEEEEEE!?!?!?!?! bastards.

8:15 AM  
Blogger *moosie* said...

i second Jess and her indignation. do you even remember my face, sir??

7:18 AM  
Blogger Josh said...

Sorry, all, but with the primaries S___ is either working or sleeping, so I tend to snag free time with her on the spur of the moment and locally. Neither of you are within the crucial 10 minute drive radius, I'm afraid. However, we're trying to set things right with the weekly brunches. Although I'm working next weekend, so it'll more likely be biweekly brunches. Still...

1:57 PM  
Blogger Alcarwen said...

is there a whistle that blows that can make everyone *have* to escape the library? like to run and get thai food?

b/c i could use that..........

7:20 AM  

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