During the past week, two signs from the heavens got me thinking. This is all a bit subjective, of course, but my train of thought led me from a red-tailed hawk and white, storybook clouds to our over-busy lives, one of my all-time favorite TV shows and the function of fiction.
On a recent walk in the Presidio, I saw the red-tailed hawk hovering on a thermal as I approached Immigrant Point overlooking the Pacific, the Golden Gate and the Marin Headlands. The hawk floated virtually motionless. How elegant. How simple. Hawks fly, eat, mate and sleep. Humans live far more complex lives. We run ourselves in circles. Then we complain. Yet most people take pride in their busyness. It seems to validate their lives in a society that less worships productivity than its impression.
The clouds appeared during a morning walk on Lake Street. They looked just like the clouds at the opening of The Simpsons—a perfect blend of white on blue. (In August we’re usually foggy—a double miracle of sorts.) I literally stopped and stared. I halfway expected to see the yellow-gold THE SIMPSONS title and hear the singing that introduces the show.
What’s true in our lives? What’s merely illusion? Which do we care about? Often what we know to be true moves us less than the stories we read and hear. Even truth becomes a story of sorts.
Most people know that an American hunter killed Cecil, a black-maned lion with celebrity status in Zimbabwe. Protests abounded. Cecil could have been the fictional Bambi. Some people protested the protests. War has displaced millions of people in the Middle East. A quarter of a million people have been killed in Syria alone. Refugees are flooding Europe. Here, an old adage comes into play. A million deaths is a statistic. A single death is a tragedy—and the stuff of stories.
In 2012 Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl, was shot and badly wounded. Much of the world was outraged. Where was the outrage when thousands of other Pakistanis were murdered over the years? When violence ripped through neighboring Afghanistan? When Islamic State later beheaded hundreds and enslaved women? People responded, yes. But Malala captured their hearts. She was a recognizable individual. She had a name and a face. She wasn’t just a news report; she was a story. Thus on to fiction…
Yes, I read nonfiction. I’m a big fan of Robert Kaplan’s incisive geopolitical books. Nonfiction enlightens the mind. But fiction touches the heart. A year ago, I finally read John Steinbeck’s deservedly classic The Grapes of Wrath. Yes, there was a bit too much repetition for my taste. But wow! How could you not understand the suffering caused by the Dust Bowl and the Depression by coming to know the Joad family?
Economists write books. Politicians make speeches. But giving people a human story with which they can identify—why presidents host “ordinary people” at their State of the Union addresses—creates both understanding and empathy.
That red-tailed hawk and those clouds hit me where I feel. The nation, indeed the world, might be better off if we read more fiction, saw more plays and attended more independent films to get out of our heads a bit and nourish our hearts.
Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.
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