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There is a morning ritual at my house. First, the golden retriever runs out on the porch, sticks his elegant snout in the air and sniffs in all directions, then picks up the New York Times in its blue plastic wrapper, carries it inside and flings it around violently until I can coax him into letting it go. I sit at the dining room table for a leisurely half hour or so with my coffee and the paper. My 25-year old son ambles down when I’m about halfway through the front section and asks sarcastically: “Well, what happy news is in the paper today?”
It’s usually pretty grim. Photos of bloody upheaval and chaos on the streets somewhere in the Middle East. Economic doom and gloom. Natural disasters. Mindless or out-of-mind shootings at home and abroad. We pick our way through from the horrific to the sublime — usually in the Arts section — to the ridiculous, usually in the Styles section.
I sometimes get carried away, thinking what a terrible time in the march of human experience my children are coming of age. It’s so easy to be swayed to apocalyptic thinking in this era of the 24-hour news cycle.
One late night I opined to my friend John who never calls before midnight. “God, the world is such a mess.”
“Yeah,” he said, “but just look at it this way. The year I was born, in 1940, the Nazis were murdering a million Jews in concentration camps. Or we could be living through the great flu epidemic of 1918.” John is a person who has spent his life deeply involved in the interaction of mankind and the Earth, writing and thinking about our humanity and our occasional lack of; plus, he’s funny. I always listen to him.
He got me thinking about what the news headlines were when I was 25 years old, my son’s age. April of 1979, the U.S. had just established full diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge had collapsed and Pol Pot, master of the killing fields, fled. Harbingers of global warming? Check. Thirty minutes of snow reported in the Sahara Desert. Environmental devastation caused by humans? Check. A Soviet biowarfare lab accidentally releases airborne anthrax spores, killing 66 people and untold numbers of livestock. Natural disaster? Double check. Terrible Tuesday along the Texas-Oklahoma panhandle, 26 tornadoes spun from a monster cell devastating Wichita Falls and so many other towns in the storm’s path. An earthquake, 7.0 on the Richter, wipes out parts of Montenegro and Albania. Ridiculous? Check. President Jimmy Carter is attacked by a swamp rabbit while fishing near his hometown of Plains, Georgia.
OK, not exactly everything coming up roses. But what about news headlines, say, the year my son was born, 1986. Hailstones weighing 2.2 lbs. rain upon a district of Bangladesh, killing 92 people. The Chernobyl Nuclear plant in the Ukraine region of the Soviet Union explodes, killing 4,000 people and releasing radioactive fallout into the skies, seas, forests and rivers. OK, never mind April, 1986. Even the comic relief wasn’t that good.
What about 58 years ago, the April I was born. Sublime? Check. Bill Haley and the Comets record “Rock Around the Clock.” Ridiculous? April 11, 1954, has been identified by the internet answer engine True Knowledge as the Most Boring Day in the 20th Century, the date on which the fewest interesting events occurred. Could we but wish for a second most boring day, or at least a most boring of the 21st century? Ominous and foreboding news? In April, 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower introduces the “Domino Theory” and Vice President Richard Nixon prophesies sending our boys to Indochina regardless of Allied support. In the U.S. Senate, Joseph McCarthy begins hearings investigating the U.S. Army for being soft on Communism. Kind of makes Rep. Paul Ryan and his House Budget Committee look like pussycats.
I hesitate to go to 1953, the year my son’s grandmother turned 25, but hey, I’m on a roll. A spark of light: Crick and Watson announce their discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, atoms that inform the development of all living beings. But wait. In Europe, the North Sea floods, high tides and storm waters breach the dykes in the Netherlands, causing the deaths of more than 1,800 people. In Nevada, the U.S. military fires a 288 mm nuclear shell into the skies over the desert while 1,600 spectators stand by watching and applauding.
I toss today’s newspaper into the recycling bin. Trayvon Martin’s mother peers out from the front page. The march of human history rolls on.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.