Thursday, June 29, 2017

Survival





On November 20, 1983, ABC aired the made-for-tv-movie-event, The Day After—a movie about nuclear holocaust filmed here in Kansas City. I was 11 years old and I made the horrible mistake of watching it alone.

There is an insufferably long montage of mushroom clouds, hellfire, and death. I watch people evaporated by fire, burned to extinction in skeletal x-ray vision. The fire rushes over town and country like a flood of flames. But even in the aftermath, there are survivors.

One survivor says “What matters is that we’re alive and we’re together.” 

In this fallout, they’ve taken to stacking corpses in mass burial sites and building make-shift encampments out of plastic sheeting and duct tape. People have resorted to looting, hijacking, rape, murder and cannibalism. There may not be food, water, or electricity but there are still cigarettes.  A doctor pulls a drag on his cigarette and says, “We’re lucky to be alive.”

Another says “We’ll see how lucky that is.”

Someone else says “Hiroshima was peanuts.”

Seeing this movie at a young age profoundly fucked my life. Like any pubescent, I was already sensitive, dramatic, and hormonal, but now I was also panicked, hysterical, and afraid. For months after seeing this movie, I was prone to breaking into fits and tears when we passed by roadside nuclear silos or even when I would see nuclear warheads on TV. I lived in perpetual fear of nuclear aftermath—which for a tween is A LOT to take on. The US was in a nuclear arms race with Russia, AIDS appeared out of nowhere, and its surrounding hysteria was spreading. This and the fact I was in the 7th grade which is in of itself its own terror event.   

I knew then that I wouldn’t survive nuclear war or would even want to for that matter in a post-apocalyptic world. For God’s sake, I don’t even like it when the electricity goes out. If and when the world falls down, I plan on falling down with it. I will take it as it comes, and I will go with the flow.  

I’m not a survivalist or some doomsday prepper because that just seems like a lot of work for little pay off. Why would I want to live in a world where only the fittest survived—where we’d learn to subsist on radioactive cans of cat food, pork and beans, roadkill, or dead relatives. No thanks.

To be a survivor is to overcome something, to find the resilience, determination or health to carry on, to endure despite all that endangers us. In this respect, I am a survivor and the fact that you are here with me now proves that you are, too.  We are survivors and we will survive. Until we don’t. Anything can happen at any time. And you know --that’s the good news and the bad news.

***

I grew up on a Kansas farm. The farm is a microcosm of life and its counterpart, death. From birth to death, from seed to harvest, the complete cycle of life is apparent, experiential. And there’s an inherent danger in that. In living. 

On the farm, accidents happened, and danger was omnipresent.

My brother, Steve worked on a hay crew and was headed southbound on Rockville Road when they were t-boned by brothers, Rocky and Bubba Kush and Steve was thrown out of the back of the truck, skidding down the gravel road scraping his entire torso medium rare.   
One other time, Steve was pulling a land leveler over a waterway.  The 20ft long leveler hit a snag and popped up onto the tractor pinning Steve's head between the steering wheel and pipe of the leveler. Steve recalls “If I wouldn't have pushed the clutch on the tractor, my head would've squashed like zit.” 

I have watched as my father was charged at and tossed into air by mama cows protecting their newborn calves.
The combine fell off the jack and onto my Dad’s head while he worked to change the tire. 
Our neighbor, Mr. Good was trapped and nearly suffocated by falling grain in his silo.
My Uncle Edward died a few years ago while spraying for thistles.  His four-wheeler fell over near a creek bed pinning him underneath and drowning him in its shallow waters.
Life and death, seed and harvest.
***
It’s a sunny day in May of 1990 when we walk the pomp and circumstance down to the track to where my graduating class sits in a fold-out chairs.  Reverend Lane Bailey, of the First Methodist Church steps to the podium to deliver the keynote address.

"Louisburg Class of 1990, you are mortal. You will die."
We snicker in disbelief; we are timeless. We are invincible. We are the high, we are the mighty, we are the Class of 1990. 
“The only thing we know in this life is that we will die…" said the Reverend. 

"Statistically, five of you will be killed by drunk drivers." He pointed over some of us. To others of us, "Ten of you will overdose. Four will be victims of domestic violence. Three will die of homicide. Two will die of AIDS…" And so on. I don’t remember what else he said…just ‘You are mortal. You will die.’
I am mortal. I will die. And so will you.
***
Not many people know this about me but I’ve nearly died many times. Many more than I care to admit.  
I’ve nearly drowned four different times. Once at a pool, in two different lakes, and once caught in the undertow of the rushing Colorado river.  
I cut off the tips of all 10 of my fingers in a fan at the age of 4.
I locked myself in an old latch-door refrigerator while playing hide and seek--with my imaginary friend, Pete Sulzen--when I was 5. It was by chance that my Dad found me a half hour later.  If he wouldn’t have I’d have suffocated.
I was stung 18 times by a swarm of bees while raking clover hay.
I fell asleep at the wheel driving down a country road late and night and rolled my car in a wheat field before crawling out the broken window and running a mile a half to the nearest neighboring house when I was 16.  
My life has been threatened and in my early 30s I was  kidnapped.

A large tree fell under the duress of a heavy snow and toppled down onto my house, missing my head by mere inches. 
I have considered suicide.
Most frightening was the most recent time—just over a year ago, I nearly died here—in this museum—choking on a piece of steak.
Quick story: I had just gotten my new braces installed and was working a shift as a caterer when I snuck a quick bite of flank steak. Not yet adjusting to braces, I swallowed the meat whole and began to choke. I couldn’t speak or breathe. I stood in the kitchen and flailed my arms about, unable to make a sound before one of the other caterers recognized what was happening and gave me the Heimlich and I spit up the steak. Time froze in paralysis and it was several minutes before I could even muster a breath to whisper ‘thank you for saving my life’ to my co-worker, Susan. It was scary for sure but even more frightening were the looks of alarm on the faces of my co-caterers that reminded me that I’d come close to death and somehow cheated it.

I have dared death many times. These are many times, many instances, many poor choices, and other circumstances that should have taken me. But here I am and here I remain. 

And sometimes I wonder if that’s luck or if that’s punishment. 
***
Summers throughout college, I worked for the Central City Opera. Built in 1878 by Welsh and Cornish miners, the Opera has hosted and boasted the talents of stage stars Lillian Gish, Helen Hayes, Beverly “Bubbles” Sills and even Buffalo Bill.
Though I’d never even seen an opera until I worked for one, I became one of a 16-member usher corps comprised of college students from across the country. Landlocked in a high altitude that excluded most radio and television reception, we were forced into operatic seclusion in Victorian homes dotting the mountainside in the former goldmining boomtown of the Wild West.  

Each year, at our first company meeting and orientation, the Artistic Director and Conductor would always give the same speech and include in it his tips on how to survive a mountain lion attack. We would laugh because it seemed so implausible and remote a chance—of being attacked by a wild animal. And though his approach was sassy and congenial, there had in fact been recent sightings of mountain lions here—in fact, a hiker had been mauled here in the 80s. These lessons of survival have stuck with me over the years now nearly 30 years later.

If you ever come in contact with a mountain lion, this is what you should do:

·                     Do not run away. This may trigger an attack.
·                     Never turn your back to a lion.
·                     Maintain constant eye contact.
·                     Make loud noises, yell, wave your arms.
·                     Make yourself as big as possible.

While these tips are meant for surviving a mountain lion attack, I took these to be pretty good skills in life.

Do not run away…from problems. They will follow you in escalating devious incarnations until you confront them.

Never turn your back. Just stop and back away.

Make eye contact.  Take time to see people, to make a connection. (also, as a way to say “I see you.”)   

Make loud noises, yell, wave your arms. (Speak up for yourself, make some noise, get excited.)

Make yourself look bigger. (Be a bigger person. Also, a little hype never hurt anyone.)

I’m sorry to say that these are the only survival tips I have to share.


This is the movie, HG Wells The Time Machine.  It was made in 1960 and used to play often on Saturday afternoons on Channel 41. Just like I’d seen in The Day After, The Time Machine depicted nuclear holocaust as inevitable, inescapable. They projected that it would happen in the mid-60s. In this movie, Rod Taylor travels past the holocaust, and the ravage of endless wars and transports himself far, far into the future from turn of the 20th century America.  We watch in a sped up timelapse as the earth heals itself and regenerates from a desolate post-war wasteland into a lush jungle paradise filled with fit young blonde people who dress in pastel cottons and lounge on grassy knolls and frolic near water’s edge. 

One moment from the movie shows a group of young people sitting riverside while a young woman drowns nearby.  While the drowning woman struggles and calls out for help, the others just look on ignoring her and leaving her to die. 

This was always the most unnerving part of the movie for me.  Why wouldn’t anyone help her to survive?  

And then a siren sounds in this paradise and the blondes all line up and march in single file lines to a temple where they offer themselves up as sacrifices to a hungry cannibalistic overlord.

This disturbed me immensely. 

In the future, would people no longer have empathy?  

Would people no longer care about the survival of others or even themselves?  

Would our lives be nothing more than a daily snack for the Morlock? 

Why wouldn’t they put up a fight?

In this political climate and overwhelming apathy I see, I wonder if that future is already here.  

***


In the 1980s, AIDS was a plague that decimated the gay community. In response, the group ACT UP was formed. Out of tragedy, a group united to fight---to fight for survival. To fight for their lives. 

Their slogan was Silence=Death. 

Silence is acceptance. Silence is compliance. Silence is death.

By being vocal, these activists and heroes let people never forget the struggle-sounding the death knell that claimed too many lives, including many of their own. This was a war of ignorance waged on our own health. 

I think of this now decades later and see how even though things change, how much they stay the same. 

How do we counteract systemic compromise of our health and well-being? Will we use our voices to survive? Can we? Or will we turn away and let those voices be drowned out as we march blindly onward to our own demise?   

***
I regard storytelling as a survival tactic.

I write because I love to listen and I perform so I know I'm not alone. I share stories in order to connect to something larger than myself.  I write as a way of recording my life. I write to give my life meaning, to gain perspective, to force introspection, to document my history, my existence.  



I am the creator and host of Shelf Life-a modern show and telling.  Think The Moth meets Antiques Road Show.  Shelf Life is a live storytelling event, where tellers share the stories behind the weird and wonderful objects that have shaped their lives. In our first season, nearly 40 storytellers shared their objects and their stories.  Many of the objects were mundane but they carried with them tremendous and harrowing stories.  These objects were symbols, imbued with memories of family poverty, white privilege, alcoholism, suicide, divorce, faith, obsession, displacement, and chasing your dreams--just to give you an idea.

The stories revealed universal truths and encouraged others to think about their own meaningful objects and the stories they represent. At each show, people laugh and cry. It is often a cathartic experience for both storyteller and audience. Our objects, ourselves.  Belongings. Belonging. 

We survive because we speak. 
We survive because we speak up. 
We survive because we speak out. 
We survive because we share. 

And when we are dead, we will survive in the memory of others. 
We will survive in that which we leave behind.

It is through sharing stories that I survive. 
It is through stories that I plan to extend my own shelf life.

Script for talk on Survival at Creative Mornings/KC.  
Kemper Museum, KCMO. June 23, 2017. 

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