Sunday, December 18, 2005

Some Effects of Reading:

I’m a little behind in my book reports. I’ve read George Orwell’s “Burmese Days”—excellent, and I’ll comment on it more fully in a future post. Yesterday, I started and finished “Among Heroes,” about the people on board Flight 93, the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11.

This book kept me from sleeping last night. I kept replaying the following scene in my mind—or rather trying to as the picture the words conjure exceed the capacities of my imagination—: a 757 flying upside down at more than 500 miles an hour, 30 feet above a person on the ground, seconds before it crashed into said ground. No wonder nothing was left to find. Equally disturbing were the author’s profiles of the generally stellar passengers on board. What a waste.

I can’t say I didn’t know what I was getting into with this book, as we all know what happened on 9/11. Nonetheless, it was disturbing. I don’t usually choose to read books like this, but I was on a plane at Newark, on the same runway, only a few planes back. Our flight never made it into the air, as one of the other hijacked planes had already hit the World Trade Center. If everything had just been delayed a bit longer, maybe Flight 93 would have been grounded too. Anyway, I feel a little bit of a kinship with these people as we were all passengers at Newark, on an uncrowded Tuesday.

John was in Haiti on September 11. These were the days when it was still somewhat safe to go into Cité Soleil. He and Rich Bertchi spent part of their day there. Later, Haitians offered them condolences. Like everyday’s not 9/11 here.

With our extended stay, I have had time to dip into Mark Twain. Let me paraphrase a story Twain told, relevant to this blog. A missionary preaches in church one Sunday. He preaches so movingly Twain knows he will put a dollar in the plate. As the visitor goes on chronicling the wretched misery of the foreigners’ lives, Twain ups the amount to $5. And a bit latter, he thinks he’ll write a big check. As the plate is passed, the missionary continues on with the deprivations of these poor people. On and on he talks. Twain abandons the idea of the check. The pathetic descriptions continue and the amount he wants to contribute falls from $5 to $2 to $1. When the plate finally arrives, Twain takes 10 cents out of it.

Okay, I don’t want my blog to do this to you, dear reader, regarding the problems of Haitians. Non, non, non. There’s a moral behind Twain’s story, which I know you’ve figured out, but I’ll let another writer, Chuck Palahniuk, elucidate it. I haven’t read any of Palahniuk’s books, but he wrote “The Fight Club.”

Palahnuik’s thesis, probably not original to him, states how crucial humor is, especially when the topic matter is sad. As he said, “tragedy on top of tragedy is overwhelming.” Furthermore, it’s not very effective.

“In college, we read about a group of people who were shown photographs of dental decomposition in various stages. The people who were shown photographs of mild deterioration and mild tooth lose increased their dental care, their dental hygiene. But people who were shown severely deteriorated mouths, hideous photographs, these people just shut down entirely. They quit brushing their teeth and flossing altogether. It actually made them worse. That’s why if you’re going to portray sadness, if you’re going to have enormous amounts of sad, dark material, it has to be presented in a funny way, or there has to be intermittent funny scenes to release that tension, to bring people back up, to contrast with the sadness, so that it can occur again and again.”

I remember noticing this strategy at work in Steven Spielberg’s movie, “Schindler’s List.” Scenes of overwhelming brutality would be leavened by a humorous scene here and there. These alternating scenes produced an almost wave-like effect, as if the viewer was running emotional wind sprints.

Haitians are funny people and goofy, hilarious stuff happens all the time. I’ll try to portray more of this, as I haven’t enough. It can feel callous to do. But in the name of results and good writing, I’ll do it. By the way, all this writing about writing has a name: meta-writing. I learned that in graduate school.

Yesterday afternoon, Faustina’s mother, who is normally pleasant and mild mannered showed up, roaring mad at Jackson. Seemed she’d been calling his cell phone since 5 am to pass on a message to us. I tried to tell her that Jackson was really sick and probably not thinking much about his phone. She didn’t care. As she stormed off to the room, John jumped up to accompany her. “I better go down there to prevent a homicide.” Sometimes Haitians don’t feel a lot of pity for each other, even when they’re friends.

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