Actor Paul Walker of the Fast and Furious movie franchise and his friend and business partner Roger Rodas died the other day and the world seems to be mourning the loss as a horrific, unexpected, unfair tragedy, but I'm struggling to see it as they do.
Paul Walker and the Fast and Furious franchise celebrated street racing and tuning culture, directly and indirectly encouraging its growth in recent years. Paul Walker and Roger Rodas were business partners in a tuning, custom car company, which surely supplied sweeter rides to many people who would then drive them at excessive speeds on public roads. People illegally street racing, even if it's only racing against themselves, arrogantly put others lives in serious danger for their own pleasure. Paul Walker and Roger Rodas died in a car meant for racing going (we can safely assume based on the destruction of the car) well above the speed limit on a public road. It is a horrible thing when anyone dies, but I'm struggling to understand how this situation is extraordinarily tragic. He and the driver made a conscious choice, as they had no doubt many other times before, to put others' lives at risk by driving at excessive speed on a public road. They rolled the dice, and this time they lost. It feels more predictable than tragic.
Paul Walker may have been in many respects a wonderful human being, a kind and generous human being, doing more good for the world than bad, but I find it a little disturbing that so many who celebrate him and bemoan the event seem to fail to recognize the cause-and-effect nature of the accident, and how much worse it could have easily been if they had taken others' lives with them. I don't expect people in their mini Twitter eulogies/etc. to remark about this, necessarily, but in the dozens of news site comments I've read I've not seen a single person seem to make the connection, instead I see people saying things like, "If Paul had been driving I bet this wouldn't have happened, he was a great driver." and "If they'd been driving XYZ car instead this wouldn't have happened." Surely a lot of people are missing the point.
Imagine if this had instead been a heroin overdose death of a great actor whose professional life involved making six movies celebrating the wondrous joys of heroin and drug culture and co-owning a company that sold drug paraphernalia. People would mourn the loss of the actor but not fail to notice the pretty direct cause-and-effect relationship at work in the death.
If you drive recklessly and/or at excessive speeds on public roads you are selfishly risking other people's lives and your own for your own kicks. You should be jailed until and unless you can abide by the laws and pose a no-more-than-normal risk to others.
* I mean "tragedy" in a sense greater than that attached to anyone's death; all deaths being tragic.
How quickly life can remind you that a day can be a truly miserable thing. Today mine started with a major fight with my girlfriend, Francine. In an attempt to escape the poisoned atmosphere of the house we set off on a pleasant but utilitarian outing. Any facade of pleasantness was instantly destroyed about 45 minutes later when I saw a huge, lovely turtle run over by a truck.
It died because I failed to save it. I saw the turtle emerging from the tall grass by the side of the road and stopped as quickly as I could, about 80 feet down the road (the speed limit was 45 mph, there was no shoulder, lots of cars behind me, I pulled off into a side road). I got out and began to go back towards the turtle but in those few moments it had moved far faster than I ever could have imagined and was already a third of the way into the traffic lane. A large passenger bus saw it but only drifted over the line to avoid running it over directly. The under draft knocked it along the lane and into the tires of a following pick up.
Life sometimes seems like a collection of utterly meaningless, pointless, forgettable moments punctuated by a few occasionally horrible and some wonderful moments. I envy the folk who see it as a more uniformly joyous procession.
I'd never seen a turtle so large on the East coast, it was at least 1.5 feet long, surely had lived a long time to get that size, and surely would have lived a longer time still. I'm not sure what I could have done differently, tried to step into traffic to flag people down, stopped my car in traffic and tried to alert people, I just had no idea there was so little time. We often imagine there's plenty of time left, to see relatives, to see friends, to be happy, to accomplish great things... Often there is not.
I cried like a baby on the drive home. I cried for the turtle. I cried for the horrendously capricious nature of life and death. I cried for my impotence; my life these days seems nothing but trying to help others only to witness their fruitless suffering. And I cried for the fact that I was crying, unable to accept life on its cruelly unacceptable terms.
We humans are sick, sadistic creatures, selectively choosing what and who we care about. Today I mourned the death of a turtle I didn't know, and cursed the driver of the killing vehicle, but I thought and cared little about the hundreds of mosquitoes, ants, and other bugs I likely killed in the remaining portion of the car ride home; I strongly suspect I killed or wounded two butterflies. But for some reason that turtle mattered most, that poor, beautiful, stupid, wonderful, turtle. I am so sorry I failed you.
Death is horrible stuff, and books on its horrors have been and will continue to be written. And many of these books attempt to help us understand and accept death, often recent deaths of people to whom we are close, and sometimes our own impending death. But I've yet to hear much talk about how we comprehend or process the death of past acquaintances.
I learned recently about the death of someone I once barely knew, Elissa, wife of my ex-girlfriend's coworker. The feelings her passing evokes are queer, being neither the intense and incomprehensible loss of someone dear nor the distant, abstracted mental shrug offered in memory of an anonymous stranger. I can't think of her death in terms of a personal loss, as the path of our brief acquaintanceship had long ago run its course. I would never have encountered her again. But in a way it's that disconnection that produces the hauntingly odd quality, the instinctive recognition that I lost something confronted with the reality that I didn't actually have it. Nothing changed, nothing given nor taken away; and yet I feel like I suffered a loss. I feel sad more indirectly than directly. I feel sad for all those who actively knew her, for those who could have known her in the future, and for the wrenchingly accidental circumstances of her death (which must have made it all the harder to comprehend). And I feel a tinge of survivor's guilt, that she knew was one of those who richly deserved life, one of those who know how to live it to its full, while I seem often merely to passively occupy both time and space. Ah well, we humans are a curious lot, forever failing to come to terms with living or with dying.
We are all someone's acquaintance, all able to linger hauntingly in someone's memory, never entirely there nor ever entirely gone.
To Elissa and Kevin, another acquaintance of mine who passed last year, I can only offer in poverty to retain their memory, appreciate the time I knew them, and leave the deserved and profound mourning to those who knew them best.
I was sad to hear about Steve Jobs death, but not as others have been. Most call him a visionary genius, but to me he was little more than a benevolent dictator leading a technology cult. The awe Apple seems to create is not through revolutionary features but through the stripping out of function in deference to form. Apple reduces every complex problem down to an overly simplified interface, satisfying only the least common denominator crowd, hipster aesthetic purists, and a small few who either break the ties that bind their device or mindfully accept technology on Apple's terms. Apple and Jobs have been adept at making the old new again, at creating the perception that they intended what long had been, albeit inelegantly.
I had more fully featured MP3 players years before there was an iPod. I had smarter phones years before there was an iPhone. I had a more capable tablet years before there was an iPad. I had more powerful multitasking personal computers years before it was possible with a Mac. Apple did not come up with these ideas nor the technology that realized them, all they did was package other people's invention in a form that ensured popularity through the careful crafting of a limiting experience. And in that capacity Apple has excelled; their products have deserved their reputation of being easier for novices to use and better at their limited tasks. Tightly controlling what your users are allowed to do, what your software is allowed to do, and what hardware they are allowed to do it on has a magnificent impact on ease of use and stability, ask any Windows or Linux/FreeBSD user who plays in a less regulated ecosystem. And yet to my perpetual surprise, cultural perception seems to credit Apple with being the father and mother of all these technological wonders: the smart phone, the MP3 player, the tablet. Steve Jobs' legacy seems not about invention or innovation but marketing, selling the people on the idea that less is more, that their way is the way, and ultimately (if unintentionally) that they were there first.
I don't like Apple, and I never liked Steve Jobs, but I, too, mourn his untimely death, for his passing is a horrible reminder that though our understanding and mastery of the universe has grown by leaps and bounds over the last few thousand years, all the money in the world cannot linger us many more days here on this good Earth. Steve Jobs had literal access to billions, literal access to every master of every scientific, technological, and medical arena here on Earth, and yet he was little more protected from the vagaries of fate than the least of us. How so very horrible and frightening that is, that in the end it mattered not the man he had become, but the every man he remained.