Saturday, March 12, 2011

Sorry: Reflections on Japan

Juxtaposition: spring cleaning at the homestead, a kid splashing in the tub, snow still crusted over the lawn and rooftop. Videos of tsunami waters ripping through Japanese towns, cars and homes adrift in deep fast-moving currents, the water leaving behind trees festooned with garbage, clothing, odds and ends. Lent, an Ash Wednesday recently passed, Sunday School tomorrow and a lesson-plan to fine-tune. Sirens in the distance. Bread cooling on the kitchen table. Soon we'll play "Sorry" and probably eat some popcorn.

I took Oceanography in college, and I understand plate tectonics. I know that the "Ring of Fire" is not just a song by Johnny Cash, and realize that these things happen; earthquakes, tsunamis, loss of life. The epicenter of the earthquake in Japan was so close to the coast that the Japanese had a scant 15 minutes to collect their thoughts and their belongings, their children and cars and pets, before the waters came. Improved warning systems are fine if you have some distance between your town and the seismic event. Time and space --

and Luck. I just won at "Sorry," a barn-burner of a game in which all three of us wound up vying for low-numbered cards as we attempted to get our last pawn Home. After reshuffling the cards three times, I finally drew the low number. My seven year old son is learning how to calculate odds as he plays -- which pawn has the best chance of making it to safety first? Which player has the best odds of winning, and needs to be sent back to Start ASAP?

As I consider the probability of the Japanese death toll numbering in the tens of thousands, it occurs to me to wonder whose job it is to recalculate the economic health of a region, after a sizable percentage of its population is swept out sea? It depends, doesn't it, on how many of the victims were women and children; on the industrial base for local employment; on whether a coastal town relied more upon fishing or farming. If a significant number of the dead lived in poverty, is the nation improved? Does the math of clean-up costs versus medical expenses make human survival more or less helpful?

What about the long-term prospects of the inundated region? Are the fields more fertile, or are they damaged by industrial pollutants and sewage? What about the explosion and near-meltdown at that nuclear power plant -- what are the prospects in that company town now? What was the environmental impact of the fires at the oil refinery? Will whole towns abandon their former neighborhoods and prefectures and flee to the cities, where they can live amongst the relatively sturdy urban highrises and find subsistence work where infrastructures are still relatively intact -- are they the new Tokyo underclass?

What of the children? Like those Haitian orphans, mud-covered, naked, lost from their families. Who is wandering the desolation, looking for a single face, wondering if it's the end of the world? Someone, somewhere in Northeast Japan. Odds are.

Lent is a time to be grateful.
Do we thank God that we are from the Midwest; that we struggle merely with long winters? Do we thank God that we live on the high ground? God be merciful to me, a sinner. To whom can we send our blankets? 

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