The radio was often on in my office in those pre-internet days. I scribbled on a notepad perched on my lap with my feet up on the thick wooden desk, distractedly solving solving some super important chocolate bar advertising emergency when the announcement came through the speakers.

I ran upstairs to inform my account team about the first American war in my adult lifetime.

“They started fighting,” I said, fighting back tears. “They started firing missiles in the gulf.”

There was a brief moment of silence and then, as if I had said “we’re thinking about ordering pizza now,” the account director commanded us back to work.

I couldn’t think about work. All I could think about was the tragedy two oceans away, the excited newscasters yammering about Scud missiles, the friends in the military, the people who might die that night.The indifference of my coworkers was profoundly wounding. I felt disgusted. I felt alone.

And of course, the great chocolate bar advertising problems of the world felt wholly insignificant.

It’s all come back to me this week, as the tragedy in Japan has unfolded. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be so stupidly busy, so absorbed with corporate “emergencies” that it seems like we don’t have time for the world. This time however, I’m the one insisting, let’s get back to work. Not because I don’t care, but because I care too much. Again, I’m scared to talk about tragedy above a whisper.

For the past few days, I have alternated between being riveted and being too horrified to watch, drawn in by the click-grabbing headlines even as I try and talk myself out of reading further.

I want to look. I can’t look. I should read this. I don’t want to read this. I need to do more. I need to look less.  I should talk to my kids about it. Leave them out of this, they’re little. There’s more breaking news now. Hey, there’s a cooking show on now! And what’s that old Charlie Sheen up to today?

Of course I scan the news. I can’t not. This is too big. Even if I don’t last long.

When I do dare to click through the apocalyptic website headlines (seriously, don’t even go near the Huffington Post if you want to protect your sanity), I am compelled to scan for the good news and lalalalalaaaa I can’t heeeeear youuuuuuu through the rest. Was that one man rescued? Did an expert downgrade the nuclear warning? That one photo of the man in the white protective suit scanning a toddler for radiation–was the toddler okay? He tested negative, right? I look for words like no imminent threat and seems to be safe.

God I need to see them.

But then, in every article, after the one story of hope and triumph, the one quote from the one optimistic expert, the article always ends with something too horribly tragically terrifying for me to stay with it too long.

Nuclear crisis? For fuck’s sake. 

I click away quickly and maybe I make another donation. Maybe I scan through comedians on Twitter.

My own twitter stream is more schizophrenic than usual these days, as I bounce between petty annoyances and pop culture commentary My head can’t go to Japan too often. It can’t go to the what would I do if I were there right now? Because then I put myself in the shoes of all those people, the ones losing homes, losing towns, losing (oh God) children. The whole town of Natori that’s disappeared. The remaining 50 nuclear reactor workers death marching to work each day. And before that hypothetical becomes to real to bear, I need to lalalalaaaaaa again.

Of course I’m also having post-traumatic  9/11 flashbacks, though then I had no choice but be glued to the TV, watching the estimated death counts climb, because the news was out my front door and seeping in through the wet rolled-up towels under the window. I breathed it in my lungs every day. How could I ignore it?

That day, the world said We Are All Americans.

What do we say today? Are We All Japanese right now? Do I owe them that much in return?

I hug my kids so tightly before bed each night. I sleep restlessly these days. I don’t remember my dreams, but I think there is running.


36 thoughts on “Japan.”

  1. there are people who can explain, in decent context, what's really happening. Suffice it to say the media is doing a great job scaring people.

    here's a compilation of what science bloggers are saying- I put it together earlier this week.


    It's a wee bit dated but I think the basic message from the scientists still applies – it's serious, but not as serious as some people are making it out to be.

  2. So well put. And as a fellow New Yorker (also here on 9/11) I totally get the return of the anxieties… Just now on Twitter I clicked on an MSNBC link (don't advise it) about Indian Point nuclear plant risk. Same kind of stuff that made us hyperventilate 9 years ago. And that was *before* we were moms…

  3. I feel exactly the same way, fluctuating between my own trivial goings on, the trivial goings on in my Twitter stream, and having this weird magnetic pull/repulsion thing going on with NPR. I have to turn it off anytime anyone says “children.” I feel weak. Overwhelmed. Guilty. Totally ineffective. I am the new global citizen. Watching with my eyes closed.

  4. I woke up this morning grumpy from lack of sleep and pain in my shoulder. And then it hit me how trivial this is compared to what is going on for the people in Japan. I'm like you – I have to look but I can't look long.

  5. Beautifully written post, about a terrifying subject. Like you, like Kami, I am watching between the gaps in my fingers and listening with half an ear, at once compelled to pay attention as a global citizen and needing to shield my sensitive psyche.

  6. I have been completely avoiding the tragedy. I feel shame that I haven't paid more attention but I don't have the emotional capacity to watch.

    I too hug my kids a little tighter and longer each night so very thankful for the relative peace and comfort of our own lives.

  7. One of my resolutions this year was to stop watching/reading the news if 1) it didn't directly affect me and 2) there was nothing I could so within the next few days to improve the situation.

    We already give away 10% of our income to a couple charities. Past that, my getting sad or scared or upset for folks who are far far away doesn't help me or them. I don't think this is callous; it's practical.

  8. Someone was asking me if I was watching or had seen a video… and I had to say no. Because if I do, I know I will just sob. They are in my hearts and in my prayers – you can't not hear the basics of what's going on, enough to know severity… but I don't think I can handle it myself right now. I seem to internalize tradegy into emotion pretty easily – I remember being one of the only ones outwardly crying watching 9/11 on tv at work. I feel guilty at not watching more, but … thank you for writing this post.

  9. I feel this post so deeply and again, you put it so well. At my home, my scientific-geeky DH is glued to the media sources, examining every detail. Then, when he proceeds to tell me all about it while I say “lalalalalala.”

    I'm not proud of it, but I think my last statement was, “No, stop, I can't hear you right now. With Japan right now, I cannot know, or I think I will be unable to function. I am sad, horrified, and I sent in my money. Can't that be enough for today?”

  10. I know. It's so massive and far away and overwhelming… I have hidden most of it from my children. My middle child has nightmares and fear issues as it is. I watch the news online in snippets, trying to figure out… what, exactly, I can do.

    Red Cross is always a good choice.

  11. Wow. I just wrote a comment on another blog that I think we are so inundated with bad news, it's nearly impossible not to be affected on an emotional and mental level. I don't know that it's healthy. On the one hand, I agree that it's important to be informed and to send donations and to help however we can; on the other hand, it is not healthy to see images of tragedy and huge headlines and discussion of more impending tragedy every second of the day. In one way, it desensitizes us; in another, it leads to a kind of global and existential depression. In the old days, we'd save our news viewing for a certain time. Now, I feel we are taking in all of these events all day long, and it adds up. I can't see how seeing constant heartbreaking and horrifying images is a good thing. But it seems to be part of our culture right now to do so. I don't know that anyone has looked closely at the effects it has on our bodies, our brains, and our hearts, though.

    And I hope this doesn't make me come off as being indifferent or unfeeling. I'm quite the opposite, which is why I feel that there needs to sometimes be a barrier for what we let in to our consciousness. And by barrier, I don't mean lack of empathy or willingness to do something–anything–to help.

  12. I finally broke my silence on Japan last night. I'm so with you, Liz. I really got depressed after Hurricane Katrina (9/11 sent me to therapy in the middle of the country). I'm shocked at our indifference, yet I'm very much needing distraction. I just wish the news would stop focusing on how this massive human tragedy will affect the American economy. That makes me very, very angry.

  13. Well, this helps to explain why NO ONE in my Facebook friend list is talking about Japan. It's like crickets in there. I get it, it hurts to see this stuff. But don't we need to see this stuff, don't we need to share the grief, try to help and to understand? Don't we need to hug people when they are hurting, instead of turning the other way or changing the subject? If Japan were a person, what would you do? Ignore them, stop being their friend because they were sad and hurting. PEOPLE, we are strong and THEY NEED US to listen and to understand.

  14. While wanting to shield my kids from the news, I knew it was impossible – they have teachers who like to talk about current events – sometimes they come home and mention things I haven't heard about – that's how much they stay on top of current events at school.

    My first graders class is praying for those who live in Japan and the workers at the power plant every morning.

    My fourth grader has been working on a science project about Nuclear Power for a month now – it's due on Monday – so of course, we have to brief her on current event as much as possible so that she can anticipate any questions thrown her way during her oral presentation. My husband, his job is in nuclear power as a plant operator, has been helping her with this. I hope he's not working so that he can be there with her at the oral presentation and help her out as much as we can. I know there are parents wh ocannot wait to see the project as they have their own questions and they want to understand.

    David hit the nail on the head with saying the media is doing a great job scaring people. (the media, they're good at that sort of thing). Every time my husband hops on BBC or CNN or any other newscast, I hear about the inaccuracies posted and how the wording used is misleading. But again, the media – lives on scare tactics.

  15. Yes. I'm scared and angry and helpless. And though I'm usually not a consumer of instant news (I'm happy to read the paper that went to bed last night), I find myself drawn to the web, clicking through to just one more horrifying story. And I don't know what to believe.

  16. Thank you so much for the honesty and insight everyone.

    Jana, I think you nailed it. The news is EVERYWHERE, every minute of the day. It's overwhelming. And for me, it's just too much.

  17. great post Liz. ditto for me too.
    I know this is so hard, the world we live in now is much smaller than it used to be. We are aware and affected by tragedy in places where we feel like we can do nothing to help. We feel bad looking away and focusing on our lives, and yet that is what we need to do to keep our spirits up and appreciate what we have even more. Flipping between tragedy and every day life has never seemed so apparent since the internet and specifically social media.
    Whatever we can do to send good thoughts to Japan. After what I've been through recently, I have no doubt that this makes a difference.

  18. Sometimes I have to look away. I just have to. Because sitting in bed sobbing isn't going to help.

  19. Often, it's not indifference so much as it is not wanting to talk about it. Wanting to compartmentalize it. People respond to tragedy/disaster/pain/grief/anxiety differently.

    Someone that I love very much is somewhere very, very close to that area of the world, and I can't talk about it, for a variety of reasons, but mostly because it's scary and is complicated and I don't have words and also because – honestly – every time I speak out or share my feelings about any tragedy not having to do with me – and even some of those that do – the trolls come out and accuse me of doing it for attention and there are times when I just can't handle that. This is one of them.

    Hugs, mama.

  20. @David thanks so much for that piece. It's helpful. Although I do wish that some of the reasonable voices didn't all have ties to the nuclear industry!

  21. I don't think the need to limit the tragedy we take in is an indictment of us as humans- there is nothing we can do beyond sending money, we've already done that, so really, our response is about what helps us and our families handle things. In my case, my kids are too young to try to explain this to, so I can limit the news I read. I am checking in on the big news sites occasionally, but for updates on the nuclear crisis, I find the site that is currently being maintained by students in the MIT nuclear engineering department to be much more informative and less scare-mongering:

  22. I thought I was having a rough working mom morning today and as I drove my kid drop off circles listened to stories about the “faceless 50” and burst into tears for them and for how totally fine my situation is. I should buck up. I don't know what to do to help but pray, donate and honor the service and sacrifice they are making

  23. I feel the same, but couldn’t begin to express it so eloquently. Thank you for writing about it and to your readers for continuing the conversation. I found David’s post reassuring amid all the sensationalist media coverage. I’m not sure how to talk about this with my seven-year-old without frightening her. She knows there was an earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Coincidently, her Brownie troop discussed emergency preparedness yesterday and the guest presenter was Japanese. (This was planned months ago.) The girls did ask questions about the earthquake and tsunami and seemed very aware of the current events. Right now, I’m taking the less-is-more road and sticking to the facts. I calmly explained what earthquakes and tsunamis are, and that millions of people around the world are sending aid to Japan. She pooled her allowance with our family’s donation to Save the Children. I have avoided the nuclear threat all together. I snatch up my New York Times before she sees the pictures or headlines, I don’t listen to NPR when she’s home and I haven't let her see me cry. I’m curious: how are other parents talking to their young children about this?

  24. I've been avoiding the media since Friday and praying for the people of Japan. It's times like these that make us realize what fortunate circumstances we have. As a parent it is what gives me opportunity to focus on my children and how they learn empathy and honor and a spirit of giving. It's the strength to do it that is so hard. I would like to see more of that in the media than the fear mongering. I chose to honor my friend Minoru as well and I know through him that the Japanese people are an amazing nation.
    Thanks Liz for saying so eloquently what a lot of us are thinking.

  25. I'm usually a total news junkie, but after the US blizzards, Rep. Giffords' shooting, the earthquake in NZ, Queensland flooding, flooding in Rio, unrest in North Africa and now Japan's Tragedy… my psyche is exhausted.

    It's not that I don't care, (I do!) but I can't assimilate any more bad news.

  26. I just want to cry thinking about, and reading this. I, too, have gone back and forth between getting immersed in work (and SXSW), and totally becoming transfixed by the increasingly horrific news.

    When the tsunami was coming in, my husband talked to my 5yo son about it, and we had the TV on. But, as it's grown more horrible and terrifying, we've gotten all our news from the Internet and not mentioned it. How can we tell him about a world in which tens of thousands of people die in catastrophic circumstances? I don't want to believe it myself.

    Anyway, thanks for writing about this. I haven't talked with many people about it, outside my husband.

  27. yep right there with you, life carries on as usual, and then every now and then the evident hits you, and the enormity of it escapes you, and you go back to the little things……

  28. I actually decided last night to just not turn on the tv today. Sometimes I have to do that. Between Charlie and Japan sometimes I need to just turn it off. I think it's of course very important to know what's going on, to care and to help. . . but I still have to do things like brush my kids teeth.

  29. It's all too much. I'm praying for the country of Japan and it's people and will donate where I feel I can. I can't watch it too much or think about it that much either. My heart and head just can't take it. And yes, absolutely hugging my babies harder and more…

  30. I feel really bad, but I just can't handle watching it right now. I mentally can't do it. It's in our face 24/7, as is every tragedy these days. It's hard to avoid, yet at some point, you have to just turn off the TV and stop looking for more information online.

    I just want a day in the sun with my kids. I think that may be my answer.

    Try and take a break from it Liz. Even a day. I promise you, it will still be there the next day.

  31. Well put. Like you, I fluctuate between being drawn to absorb every bit of info and being overwhelmed by it all. It also made me angry watching the way the news showed the tragedy again and again in the name of reporting … at what point is does it become information overload and people become apathetic?

  32. I love that you wrote about Japan. I also hate that you wrote about Japan.

    I wanted to read it, to see what you had to say, knowing it would be beautiful and sad, but then again I didn't. Because it would be beautiful and sad and I'd have to think about parents losing their kids, and what if that happened to us or people we knew (God forbid) and I'd go to bed carrying all that worry. And I did.

    But I'm glad I read it last night. And flicked through the news today and saw all things nuclear and scary. Because no matter how hard it is for us, it is worse for them and thinking about it, sending our good thoughts when we can, keeping it close, is the least we can do.

    And go on living, we can do that for them too.

    But I get it, I still cannot even talk about 9/11. It still chills me to the bone. Which makes me wonder, how many years will it take for the Japanese to shake this off, to recover in their hearts? Generations, I think.

    Thanks Liz.


  33. I am feeling the exact same way. I feel washed in guilt over the normality of my days and turning on the tv or opening a website with an ouce of news terrifies and rivets me.

    I can't fathom the depth of this tragedy for the Japanese people and I feel almost selfish at times feeling scared or sad…I have no right.

    Trying to focus on gratitude for my amazing day to day of fixing another chicken dinner, wiping poopy bottoms and arguing over who left a cowboy hat in the sink.

    Normality is bliss now. Right?

  34. This post was beautifully written. I love that I can come to this place for a good laugh, for understanding as a mother, to discuss world news, to talk about politics. You never fail to impress.

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