Monday, July 23, 2012

Death, and death again

After several years off I am starting up this blog again. I have resisted it for years now. I was tired of politics and tired of media and tired of trying to keep it up. But my hiatus from Mediagrouch didn't save me from arguing politics, because I ended up getting into useless FaceBook arguments with people of all political stripes over the politics of the day. With the election coming up the vitriol has simply gotten more and more heated, and the insults have flown my way and, to my shame, from me as well. Passion.

But the real reason I decided to start posting again was not the Affordable Care Act nor the massacre in Aurora CO, nor even Mitt Romney's horse. It is because Sally Ride died today, and I can't stop weeping.

The media has a propensity to make us weep from time to time. Having experienced my share of trauma, I can't help it. It mostly started after 9/11, when I would weep every time a news report came on or a fire engine went by. We live five blocks from Greenwood Cemetary, and the endless parade of black-draped fire trucks that went by our building became a crushing weight. It only got worse after my dad died two years ago. Sometimes things affect us. 

I have something to admit however: I am weeping as I write this, having read the news of Sally Ride's death, but I didn't weep at all with the news of the shootings in Colorado. I don't know if I felt angry or numb or what--but I did not feel sad. Perhaps, as the Onion wrote, we have become too used to that sort of thing. Another mass shooting--well, these things happen. This is America. Innocent people die. 

But our heroes are not supposed to die, anymore than our grandparents are. In fact, because heroes are as real to us as fictional characters, we expect the never-ending happy ending of the movies to accompany our heroes. There is an old saying that comedy and tragedy depend on where you end the story, but Americans, as I have noted before, live in the melodramatic paradigm, and in the end everything is supposed to turn out ok. That is how we are brought up to see the world. There are heroes and villains, and the hero never dies. (except three times, in the case of John Wayne. True story: just like the charachters in Peanuts, I got into an argument over what happened to Davy Crocket, because I knew that he was the hero of the Alamo and, even though my parents wouldn't let me stay up to see the end of the movie, I knew he survived because he was the hero and the hero doesn't die). 

Sally Ride was a hero to so many Americans, the kind of hero every one of us should look up to. She broke the ultimate glass ceiling, and changed the lives not only of millions of American girls, not just of women the world over, but of all of us. As the first American woman in space she became a symbol of what we all could accomplish (at least in low-Earth orbit, which is another sad tale). Her passing at age 61 due to pancreatic cancer is a terrible blow, but it is felt worst of all among all the young girls who looked to the stars with the word "someday" on their lips, who follow every satellite launch and go to Space Camp in the Summer and have Neil DeGrasse Tyson on their screen savers, the girls and young women for whom Sally Ride was not just a hero or a trail blazer, but the woman they so fervently wanted to be. To them her death is as terrible as the death of their closest loved ones could be. 

We should soberly ask "why?" It is clearly not our relationship with Sally Ride--most of us did not have one. It is our relationship to her through the media. It is what the american media built her up to be, what she symbolized, what she became not as a person but as an icon. The ways in which the media, almost without forethought, builds people up (or tears them down) are part of a program we have been complicit in developing with them--a program in which famous people act as surrogates for us in satisfying our desires, or as receptacles for our hatred and anger, as icons of inspiration or revulsion. It is nothing new--the Greeks were doing it three thousand years ago, and the Egyptians a Babylonians before that. It is part of our psyche, part of the human condition, that we need heroes, people we can look up to, draw inspiration from, learn through imitating, and eventually come to admire and even in some strange detached way to love. 

And that is why I have been weeping at the death of Sally Ride.