I’ve been thinking about scale-slipping.
Ever since the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami hit Japan on March 12th (our March 11th), I’ve been noticing how we seem to respond to disaster by slipping along a scale from the personal to the universal, from the universal to the personal. When something happens to us—a personal loss—we enter a personal anguish that we begin to relieve eventually by putting it into a larger, universal perspective: this happens to people all the time: many people have lost loved ones and survived: so can we. When something happens to the world—a universal loss—we enter a universal anguish that we begin to get a grip on by putting it into a smaller, personal perspective: this could have been me: this could have been my friend, my daughter.
I’m calling this “scale-slipping,” after Mira’s “time-slipping.”
When members of the cult Aum Shinrikyo attacked Tokyo subway trains with sarin gas in 1995, they killed thirteen people, severely injured fifty, and caused temporary vision problems in a thousand. Worse, they threw a city into chaos and a nation into self-doubt with an act of domestic terrorism. At the time, I knew barely anybody in Japan and nobody in Tokyo where it took place, but I followed the news closely and felt sincerely if vaguely disturbed.
[amazon_image id=”B003XT604U” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche[/amazon_image]
In 2007, I read Haruki Murakami’s 1998 book [amazon_link id=”0375725806″ target=”_blank” ]Underground[/amazon_link], in which he writes up his scrupulous research and interviews with survivors of the attack. By this time I had ridden many lines of the Tokyo subway, especially the Marunouchi line, on which one person had died and 358 were seriously injured. I had stayed many times in the Hotel New Hankyu in the Tsukiji district, a hotel whose rooms are in the 32nd to 38th floors of the St Luke’s Residence, which is part of the St Luke’s Hospital complex, where many of the victims were treated. So reading again about this horrific event that happened on the other side of the world was completely different from reading the newspapers thirteen years earlier. Now it was an event that took place on trains I’ve ridden, to people like my dozens of friends who commute to work every day on those train lines. I could picture the serene lobby that I’ve walked through so many times filled with the chaos Murakami described. I could feel how the quiet Japanese crowds must have felt that day. I shared Murakami’s grief and searching for a way to understand how this could happen in the peaceful, orderly Japan we both love.
That was my first experience of scale-slipping in Japanese tragedy. In 1995 I felt it as a huge tragedy far, far away. In 2007 I felt it as a huge tragedy my friends endured in a place that I could imagine calling home. I slipped from the universal scale to the personal scale without even noticing it.
I noticed how we do this scale-slipping for the first time after the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan because all the comments I heard that first day after the devastation in Japan were on such a minute, personal scale, I couldn’t not notice it.
I was staying at a friend’s place in Aptos at the time—Kjersten and I were on a roadtrip together so I could play kiddie concerts with the Monterey County Symphony in Salinas. That night I was sitting with my laptop working on my post about domestic violence, a kaddish for those who don’t escape, when the New York Times news alert of an 8.8 earthquake and tsunami arrived in my email. The first minutely personal-scaled reaction I observed was my own:
I looked up Fukushima prefecture in Google Maps, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief that it was far, far north of where my friends and their families live, around Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, and Iyo—all in the southern part of Honshu, nowhere near Sendai, the city we later learned was at the epicenter of an earthquake that was reevaluated at 9.0 on the Richter scale.
I breathed a sigh of relief, even though 9.0 on the Richter scale is more than 10,000 times more powerful than the worst earthquake I’ve ever felt, a 4.3 here in Oakland, many years back, that scared the crap out of me.
I breathed a sigh of relief even though the news alert went on to report that local Japanese television was broadcasting images of cars, trucks, and buildings being swept away by a tsunami in Onahama city.
I breathed a sigh of relief even though I knew that any time cars, trucks, and buildings are being swept away by a tsunami, a heartbreaking number of lives are being swept away with them.
I breathed a sigh of relief because my Japanese people were probably okay—no doubt rattled, and probably facing a great deal of grief difficulty in coming days and months, but alive.
And then I watched myself breathing this sigh of relief, and I was appalled. This was a natural disaster of unimaginably huge proportions, and I had no business feeling anything but devastated—whether the handful of Japanese people I feel connected to were okay or not. But I was reasonably certain that unless they’d been traveling in the northern part of Honshu or had families there, they were probably okay and I would get to go out for a beer with them again someday, and this made me feel better.
I slipped from the universal-scaled tragedy to a personal-scaled relief.
I had also scale-slipped quite literally, from that record-setting 8.8 (now 9.0) on the Richter scale to my own personal record-setting 4.3 on the Richter scale, to get a sense of just how the shaking felt.
Keeping it personal, rather than loading some news sites, I immediately checked Facebook. My friend Masako was first to report that she was fine, that where she lives outside Osaka is far south of the epicenter and high enough up in the mountains to be safe from the tsunami. A few days later, she reposted from her friend’s page the image above of the bandage over northern Honshu.
Akio was next:
Big earthquake attacked Japan. But I’m OK. Just information.
March 10 at 10:46pm
I walked for 4.5 hours. So tough! I’m at home now.
All of subways and trains in Tokyo area has still stopped. There is traffic jam all of roads. Taxis go so slowly….
March 11 at 6:12am
The next morning, I stopped for coffee on the way out of town to my concert in Salinas, and as I was getting back into my car with my Nissan bottle full, a woman whose car was parked next to mine rolled down her window and asked, “Did you hear about Japan?”
“It’s horrible; 8.9 they’re saying. Tens of thousands of people dead. It’s so terrible…”
She kept going for a while. She needed to tell someone, I guess; to make a personal connection in the face of this universe-scaled disaster. But I had to get to my gig on time, so after a few more sentences I gave her what I hoped was a somber enough reply and then excused myself.
As I drove, I listened to a local NPR affiliate station barely mentioning what was known about conditions in Japan but reporting at length about local coastal conditions. They warned repeatedly that six-foot waves were expected, and that local authorities had issued an order to evacuate any buildings within a few blocks of the shoreline. What they meant by that was “walk a few blocks inland to higher ground.” While I was thinking about how wrong it felt that so much airtime was going to minor local conditions and so little to the place of great devastation, I again scale-slipped to the personal, realizing that minutes ago I had been sleeping a block and a half from that very coast. Not to worry, though—it was also above a cliff, some eighty feet above sea level.
I went on scale-slipping like this from the universal to the personal all day, and at the concert hall, I heard my colleagues doing the same thing.
This seems to be a natural reaction. We do it all the time, scale-slipping to the personal when we can’t handle the universal, and vice versa.
I wrote about it over a year ago in my consultancy’s blog. My post “Putting disasters in perspective, or Our crappy economy isn’t so bad” used a few simple graphs to make the point that we far overestimated the impact of 9/11 and Katrina relative to the recent earthquakes in Haiti and China and the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia. That one was caused by an earthquake estimated at 9.1–9.3 on the Richter scale that I am so unable to slip along.
Benoit Mandelbrot discovered fractal mathematics after observing that the length of the English coastline depended on how closely you looked. If you look at a world map, it’s a measurably short path. If you look at a county map, that path is more complex, full of curves. If you zoom in on a satellite image, the curves are made up of smaller curves. If you walk along the coast, those curves are made up of still smaller curves. If you look at it with a microscope, the boundary between the water and the land is as minutely detailed as the power of your microscope. So, he determined, the length of the coastline was a matter of perspective—it was on a continuum that varied with the magnitude of the scale.
My thinking about how musical cognition lies on a similar fractal scale that varies with the listener’s perspective informed my conception of the musical part of this “kaddish in two-part harmony” project.
Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me now to realize that we measure loss and devastation on a fractal scale, also, and we use scale-slipping to cope. I’m seeing it here: Mira and I have joined together in a project where we reach for the universal in our particular experiences, and it’s healing us. Our listeners and readers have been responding to the universal themes with their personal experiences, and they confide that making these connections is helping them heal, too. Less than five months into our yearlong project, I already feel what a life-changing personal privilege it has become for me to take Mira’s hand in this collaboration. That you, our readers and listeners, have also joined us here is moving in a way I can’t measure on my personal scale and can’t understand on a universal scale. That my friend Akio recently subscribed to the “kaddish in two-part harmony” podcast and left a generous compliment about it on my Facebook wall brought the first tears for Japan’s 9.0 earthquake and tsunami to my eyes.
A kaddish for all the sons and daughters Japan has lost and will continue losing in the aftermath of this devastation, whose enormous universal scale I cannot comprehend, whose personal scale is also enormous in its minute detail.