Thursday, 8 December 2011

Up in Smoke.

Two nine volt batteries. For six or more, they cost 64 cents each. Yet, those two missing batteries created incalculable loss.

Everyone is asleep in that Bronx apartment building when, according to fire officials, a cord to a space heater catches fire and ignites bedclothes. The residents of that room run into the hallway to alert other residents, but make the fatal mistake of leaving the door open, thus allowing the flames to spread.

And the smoke detectors: They sit, stuck to ceilings or walls or wherever smoke detectors stick, waiting. What they wait for is a battery so that the burgeoning smoke will cause them to sound their alarm. Sixty four cents. Five minutes of time for installation. Ten lives. Instead of an immediate call to 911, residents try to put out the fire themselves. One resident calls her husband first. After the 911 call, it takes firefighters just over three minutes to arrive.

People toss children from windowsinto the arms of neighbors. Jump themselves. Fire escapes are not required in buildings of this size. The only escape route is the blazing mahogany staircase. Almost 150 firefighters battle for two hours to get the fire under control.

One man, a taxi driver, drives his cab when the fire starts. It kills his entire family; a wife and three small children.

In a matter of hours, this man's reasons for living are gone. How does one make sense of this? A series of human choices and errors which, alone, might not cause such tragedy. Yet, strung together in this sequence, the consequences are tragic.

On this scale the impact of choice is magnified. But what about the small choices we make each day? To drive through the changing traffic light? To ignore the crack in the windshield? To leave the teapot on the stove for just one minute? To wait another day to return that phone call?

Some of us have the luxury of a comfortable life. We can attend to small things as they come up. Others are so overwhelmed by the pressure to survive, they cut corners with these "little" things. But how do any of us know when those minutiae will pile up and cause one great tragedy?

We don't.

What can be done is for us to make our days and lives meaningful to ourselves and to others. We can help people. We can keep our minds and our eyes open. This is the only lesson (besides my having checked my smoke detector) I can glean from this awful incident.


Last night, after a long ride with my team, I attended the AIDS Walk Dance off fundraiser. Cassie from my team is one of the walkers/fundraisers. During one of our rides I had shared with her the name of one of my niece's dolls, "Sparkilina."

If you recall, my niece, Sophia, has another doll, "Dolly," who has been with her for almost 2 years. Dolly no longer has much hair to speak of and she has undergone surgery after a blowdryer, um, incident. But she is still the favorite of the ever-growing, non-human contingency of companions for Sophia. My niece has an extensive wardrobe for Dolly, which includes her "borrowing" diapers from my brand new nephew.

Sparkilina is new. She is the Gina Glocksen of Cabbage Patch Kids, complete with the shocking red hair stripe. My niece surely loves her. She's held a few birthday parties for Sparkilina (we had to bake a cake for each one).

Stories about Sophia and her little friends have given us hours of entertainment. During our long training rides, my teammates and I talk about everything; cycling, clothes, food, family. When Sparkilina's name came up, Cassie decided adopt it during the dance-off last night.

Sparkilina the dancer was a big hit! Congratulations to Cassie and her friends for a fun, successful event.

Update on Backwards.

Disillusionment has been a common feeling for me of late. Having recently become involved in the sport of cycling and racing, I look up to those with enough talent and strength to compete in contests like the Tour de France. This year, two incredible athletes were removed from competition based on suspicion of their use of "banned substances."

It's unclear to me whether I am supposed to feel outrage at this. Are the truly awesome performances of these two men attributible only to their alleged pharmacologic enhancement? Would I be just as inspired to have seen them perform without having used these illicit substances? Nobody knows.

The bigger question is whether viewership would be the same if these athletes could not pull off stunning performances and blowout comebacks. Would anyone watch? Are we as a World audience so accustomed to superhuman exploits that we no longer care to be reminded of our mortality?

Another recent discovery of mine is the "reality" show Man vs. Wild, featuring Bear Gryllis, survival expert. He is dropped off in remote areas and must battle the wilderness, the elements and sometimes wild animals in order to reach safety. The show touts the fact that Bear does not receive assistance from the camera crew or from others. He is provisioned only with a canteen, a knife and a flint. He eats bugs. He wrestles fish from the ocean and eats them raw. He wards off bears. He fends off exhaustion, extremes of temperature and hunger. Or does he?

Turns out he stays in motels sometimes during his adventures. He has assistance with the building of shelters and rafts. He has more to eat than the flora and fauna of the region. The media are up in arms about this.

Do I care? Not really. Am I still entertained by his adventures? Yes. Will I continue to view the show? Of course. It's a TV show for goodness' sake! I have little interest in seeing someone freeze to death or pass out from exhaustion in the name of television.

But where do we draw the line between entertainment and sport? Is there any such thing as pure sport anymore or has our commercial interest superceded our interest in testing the limits of unenhanced human power?


With the buzz surrounding the verdict on the Isiah Thomas' sexual harrassment case, I suppose it is just about time for our friend Al Sharpton to plant his face on our television screens. What does he want now? An apology for Thomas' apparent permission for use of the word "bitch" between members of the same race.

First of all, there are far worse words that one can use if one has bad feelings about someone. The word itself is rather benign. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following:
1) a. The female of the dog;
b. The female of the fox, wolf, and occasionally other beasts.
2) a. applied opprobriously to a woman; strictly, a lewd or sensual woman. Not now in decent use but common in literature. In modern use especially a malicious or treacherous woman; of things: something outstandingly difficult or unpleasant ("son of a bitch.");
b. Applied to a man (not common);
c. A primitive form of lamp used in Alaska and Canada.
3) Combinations and attributes, as (sense 1) bitch-puppy, -whelp; (sense 2) bitch-baby, -clout, -daughter, -hunter, -son; bitch-daughter (obs.), the nightmare; bitch-fou a. (Sc.), as drunk and sick as a bitch, `beastly' drunk; bitch-goddess, in William James's phr. (see quot. 1906); cf. success sb. 3.
4) A mining instrument used for unscrewing rods or recovery of broken rods.
1) a. To frequent the company of lewd women;
b. To call anyone "bitch;"
c. To behave bitchily towards.
2) a. To hang back (rare);
b. To spoil, to bungle. Also as "botch;"
c. To grumble, to complain.

Of course, the "lewd or sensual woman" definition is the source of the sexual harassment suit against Isiah. However, my bet is that his use of the word about Ms. Sanders in reality was as a "malicious or treacherous woman."

What does Al Sharpton have to do with any of this? Besides to ride on the coattails of a public spectacle and create more public anger than already exists?

In the late 1980's and 1990's Sharpton's presence was important in bringing justice to Brooklyn gang members who took part in racially-motivated beatings. Sharpton played a critical role in the way hate crimes are viewed and managed in this country. His experience as manager for James Brown gives Sharpton a public marketing angle in trying to raise public awareness. He was instrumental in the 1986 Howard Beach protests when three African-American men were assaulted by a white mob. Sharpton also raised awareness and staged protest in the 1989 Bensonhurst attacks on four African-American teenagers and the subsequent shooting of one of them.

His methods, however, sometimes create more public unrest, anger and violence. It is common for him to accuse his target first in the public eye without having investigated to see if there is validity to his accusation. This type of "trial by press" incites rage and sometimes violence.

Perhaps the most famous of these is the 1987 case of Tawana Brawley, the then 15 year old woman from Wappinger's Falls who fabricated an elaborate racially-motivated abduction and sexual assault. There was glaring evidence that she had not been kidnapped or harmed. In fact, witnesses saw Brawley at parties during the time that she was ostensibly "missing." Under the leadership of Rev. Sharpton, the investigation became a witch hunt against members of the police and local government. Given the nature of the evidence, it is likely Sharpton and his team suspected the abduction was a fake. Yet, they pressed on, harming many innocent people in the process.

The incident did catapult Sharpton's public image and made him the celebrity he is today.

So why does this man now choose largely benign name calling as his rally point for action? Is the use of words like "bitch" and "ho" cause for public demonstration and outrage? Are there so few issues deserving of our attention that we must get riled up over this?

Or is Sharpton merely coasting? He thrives on media attention and seeks it wherever he can find it. But, perhaps our dear Reverend is no longer courageous enough to tackle the larger issues which gave him that celebrity in the first place.