February 10, 2005

Living on the Edge

Today's Musical Selection: "Stompin' at the Savoy" by Benny Goodman

Hi there, everybody! I have been awfully busy the last few days, but I did want to take a moment to mention something.

Seems that in all the hubbub, I forgot to tell you that I almost died last week.

I'll explain. See, over by my office, they're digging up the earth in the name of Progress, to put in a new warehouse of some sort. Digging up the earth in the name of Progress is a fairly common activity in the Fedroplex these days, and I thought nothing of it as I drove away from my office to visit my waitress and grab some Mexican for lunch. (Note to self: In future, be sure to check for life-imperiling circumstances before going to lunch.)

It was an uneventful lunch. I got my usual burrito, my usual Coke and my usual smile from the cashier. All was proceeding more or less according to plan until I got to the light at which I turn back into the office complex. There, I discovered that they'd blocked off the road.

This was a fairly nettlesome situation, inasmuch as there are only so many ways to get into my office complex. I had three options: I could try to elude the barricade and drive the wrong way up the road to my office. I could bang a U-turn, get on Route 28 and take the long way around. Or I could merge back onto Route 50 and hope they'd let me turn at the next light. Since I didn't feel like chatting with Johnny Law on that particular day, Option #1 was out. And since my lunch break was almost up and I didn't actually know how to get to my office from 28, Option #2 seemed iffy. So I went ahead and got back on 50 (a truck driver was kind enough to let me through), and found myself in a standstill. Great. Now I was going to run over my lunch break.

With nothing better to do, I turned up my Warren Zevon CD and surveyed my surroundings. I quickly noticed an awful lot of fire trucks surrounding the excavation site on the other side of the road. This struck me as out of the ordinary. And then I caught the whiff of gas.

It seems that, in the process of digging up the Earth in the name of Progress, it seems that the interpid crew hit a natural-gas pipeline. This was the reason that the firetrucks were out, and the reason that the road to my office and westbound 50 were shut down. (Some of you Fedroplexers may have heard about this in your radio traffic reports.) They didn't shut down eastbound 50, however, and so there I was, about 15 feet away from the gas leak (which, by the way, was located next door to a gas station) with no particular place to go.

I couldn't move forward, backward or sideways to find an alternate route. And through traffic was very slow, it was moving, so I couldn't just leave my car and walk back to the office. I was stuck. And it slowly dawned on me that, with one flick of a Bic, we could all be blown to kingdom come. And once this revelation had time to sink in, it gave me something to ponder.

I don't usually traffic this close to the edge of mortality, and I'm not really clear on the protocol. I wasn't scared, certainly not the way I imagine I'd be if someone held a gun to my head. In fact, my reaction was more along the lines of the following:

"Aw, come on, not this week. I'm having a good week. I can't die now."

Now, I can't say that I'd always have that same reaction. One of my favorite comedians, Ron White, tells a story about the time he was on a plane for a short flight and the pilot announced they were having engine trouble. White says his response was. "Just make sure you hit something hard. I don't wanna limp away from this wreck." I certainly know the feeling. There have been days when I'd almost have rooted for someone to show up with a flamethrower.

Not really, though. I think it's hard for us to really comprehend the true meaning of non-existence. Assuming there is no afterlife and no possibility of reincarnation, I'm not sure how well we can really grasp the concept of ceasing to be. Intellectually, we may understand that there will come a time when it will happen to us, but we can't exactly imagine what it will be like. How can you envision nothingness? It's like being in a pitch-black room, perhaps, only without sounds or smells, without the weight of the atmosphere against your skin, and for that matter, without the ability to perceive what you're not perceiving. Our whole human experience is grounded in perception, and I don't think it's really possible to know what it would be like to be completely without it. It's like trying to count to infinity.

Not that these thoughts, or anything nearly so lofty, were going through my head as I sat there smelling the gas leak. I'm simply pointing out that when we find ourselves entertaining a preference for death, I think what we really want is to be blown out of our current existence into a fresh start. A sort of reset button for life. I think more or us consider the possibility more often than we'd care to admit.

But, all in all, I was pretty happy with my existence as it was, and had no particular desire to start over. Instead, I found myself wondering who would take over the Fan Club if I died, and who would preside over the weekend meeting, and how long is would take my office mates to notice I was gone, and whether they'd connect the dots if they heard the news on the radio, and so on.

Now, no one is irreplaceable in life, I know. Had I died, my co-workers would eventually have noticed. Some of them probably would hav emissed me for awhile. I haven't been there that long, though, so I doubt it would be a devastating loss for any of them. And they'd find someone to replace my work output without too much trouble. My family and friends would miss me, too, and they'd surely take it harder. (Most of them, anyway.) But they'd all carry on; I don't really think there's anything I give them that they couldn't get somewhere else. The Fan Club would probably be the hardest hit, just because it's so new and I've been virtually a one-man organizing committee. It's possible the Fan Club would collapse without me. I doubt it, though; too many want to see it happen, and they'd all pitch in and figure out a way to see it through. It might not exactly correspond to my vision of it, but it would carry on and after a while, no one would know the difference.

So I wasn't concerned so much about my passing dealing a crippling blow to anyone or anything. I was more annoyed at the thought of leaving so many loose ends. I don't like leaving things unfinished, leaving messes for other people to clean up. So this caused my brow to furrow as I drummed on the steering wheel, in time with Warren singing "Poor Poor Pitiful Me," watching the minutes of my lunch break ticking away, smelling the burrito sitting beside me on the seat.

What about my waitress? I wondered. Would she notice if I didn't come in there any more? Would she care? Would it upset her if she found out I died? And how would she even know, since she still doesn't know my name? Must do something about that. Assuming I make it out of here alive and all.

I took a closer look over at the scene. Firemen and police officers strode up and down the road, trying to look casual but failing. They kept looking at each other with expressions that said, "How much longer is this going to go on?" Since there was no actual fire, no actual emergency situation, there was nothing for them to dobut stand around and wait in case something happened. Waiting for calamity is a guaranteed tension-producer, I can assure you.

And I thought about the possbility of a spark to set the whole thing off. What if someone lit a cigarette without thinking about it? Would anyone be that foolish? Or crazy? Or suicidal? I felt it broiling inside the car, even though it wasn't an especially warm day. Something about tension ratchets up the tempature.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity but was more like 15 minutes, I finally had the chance to turn left and get away from the scene. As I pulled into the parking lot of my office, I felt simultaneously that it had been much ado about nothing and that I'd dodged a bullet. An odd reaction, perhaps, but it was an odd situation.

I'm too young to have fully experienced the Cold War, but it must have been very much the same way: not facing a moment of primal danger, but always on edge for what might happen, and being powerless to stop it if it did. I'd argue that a situation like that is more draining than a hot war, which is more like a near-miss collision at an intersection: a brief spike of adrenaline, a sense of immediate danger, and then a quick passing. I think the Cold War is truly fascinating, and worth serious historical study. Unfortunately, we're now entering another period of potentially protracted war, and suddenly it's not considered prudent to take an honest look at a previous war, particularly the degree to which the threat may have been overblown. Just as the Cold War recedes far enough into the distance that dispassionate historical study is possible, we enter a jingoistic period in which honest questioning of your country is tantamount to treason. It's a shame, really.

(And I didn't mean to get political there... the thought just occurred to me.)

At any rate, I'll be back at least one more time this week. See you then!

Posted by Fred at February 10, 2005 09:40 PM

You may be the only person I've ever known (well, you know what I mean) that would, in the face of possible impending doom, worry about a fan club and an anonymous waitress.

Posted by: frinklin at February 11, 2005 01:39 AM

Those are some interesting things to be thinking about when faced with the possibility of death. Although I have to admit that I think some of the same things on occasion.

I have just moved from a town I was only in for about a year. I left some friends behind, and often times wonder if they were too terribly upset about my leaving. Or I think of those people in my class that I only talked to once or twice. Did they miss me? Do they even notice I left?

I've also been in a potentialy dangerous situation and subconsciously hoped for the worst. It is just like you said, too. Hopeing for a chance to start over, not just...end.

Glad to hear you escaped the situation without any injury. And glad to hear the fan club is getting along so well. Maybe after time you won't be a one man show, and can spend more time at that resteraunt of yours. I'm anxious to hear what comes of you and that waitress.

Posted by: Brett at February 11, 2005 05:45 PM

I would have missed you, should you have blown up. I'm very pleased that you didn't.

I agree completely with your statements regarding the idea of nonexistence being incomprehensible. I try not to think about it, infinity, and the actual meaning of the word "forever" because they all make my brain physically hurt. None of them are concepts I can fully grasp.

I also like the thought that what we really wish for is a reincarnation-like reset button, although the likelyhood that we would end up living again in the most prosperous nation in the world and pretty well off is fairly unlikey. I, personally, would lobby for a movie star life, but with odds being what they are, I'd probably end up in the middle of Africa, starving or being attacked for my religious beliefs or ethnicity.

Posted by: ensie at February 11, 2005 11:25 PM

I am sooo going to regret this, I'm sure...

I LOVE Ron White. As much as I hate Texas that makes no sense at all. I must be becoming some sort of white-trash housefou because I am really looking forward the the Blue Collar Comedy Tour Part II on Sunday. Just saying those words kind of freaks me out.

Of course...I'm also looking forward to The L Word next weekend, too.

Posted by: ensie at February 12, 2005 12:18 AM
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