Our staff writer, Eric Wolff, snapped a photo Monday afternoon while chatting with fire evacuees at Qualcomm Stadium. It was the cover of Life & Style Magazine with the word “Crisis!” in big yellow letters over photos of four well-known starlet socialites who are—according to teaser blurbs visible in the photo—each going through a crisis of some sort.
The photo was Eric's attempt at a little wry humor: Nothing like a major disaster to put things into perspective. But even a little schadenfreude seemed difficult to muster on Monday, when predictions were that the 2007 wildfires could be worse than what we saw in 2003.
Since Monday morning, I've been thinking about the days after 9/11—disaster news coverage has that effect—when we Americans seemed to feel a collective sense of disgust about our misguided priorities. (If you don't remember this, get your hands on a copy of the 2001 Academy Awards broadcast, during which that tiny industry we normally so revere seemed embarrassed by its own sense of importance and tendency toward excess.)
If disasters force us to reflect on what's important, fire makes us think about the importance of what surrounds us. Wind and floods destroy things, sure, but not with the same certainty as fire—fire literally feeds off things, even the air we breathe. CityBeat editor David Rolland, who was in a Rancho Santa Fe neighborhood Monday with fire crews, described standing in the backyard of a home when suddenly something sucked up all the air—that's when you know it's time to run.
If you've not had to pack up your valued possessions in suitcases or boxes this week, you've at least thought about what you'd take if you had to. TV news reporters have been giving us lists of what we should absolutely grab—documents, pets, medication, photos (watching the news footage of the cops who saved a family's photographs before their house went up in flames was pretty powerful). Still, there's nothing like a little panic to help you narrow your choices—the one time I've faced a fire, I grabbed only my cat.
What's strange about humans, though, is that we will compensate for a loss by acquiring more stuff. Accumulating things involves making choices, and the ability to choose helps us feel like we're in control. A 2005 story in the Union-Tribune found that homes re-built in Scripps Ranch after the 2003 Cedar fire ended up, on average, just over 850 square feet larger than they were pre-fire: 3,345 square feet after the fire as compared to 2,489 before the fire. That's a pretty significant increase in size. We also feel compelled to give to help others feel better about a loss. On Monday and Tuesday, city and county officials had to tailor their requests for donations several times because people were being too generous. But, ultimately, the more we acquire, the more we stand to lose. Maybe Buddhism's on to something with its belief that enlightenment comes when we rid ourself of material possessions.
I jotted down something Channel 8 news anchor Stan Miller said Monday night during a broadcast: “This too shall pass.” For some reason, I threw the phrase into Google to see where it originated. Ends up it's a Hebrew parable involving King Solomon (he of the wise choices). Solomon wanted a particular gold ring and sent one of his advisors out to purchase it. He wanted the ring because he'd heard that it had the power to make a sad man happy and a happy man sad.
The advisor found the ring and brought it back to Solomon, who noticed that it had the words “This too shall pass” inscribed on it. As the parable goes, “At that moment, Solomon realized that all his wisdom and fabulous wealth and tremendous power were but fleeting things, for one day he would be nothing but dust.” Some reality check.
Or, if you've seen the film Fight Club—one of the sharpest critiques on late 20th-century materialism: “You're not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You're not your fucking khakis.”
It's a little harsh, but for those of us who have the luxury of a home to return to tonight, clothes to wear tomorrow—the whole comfortable package—it puts things into perspective.