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Mr. Labash, Is the recent hurricane the best near-term opportunity I could expect to fake my own death? I have real concerns about the enjoyability of my current life path and wonder if a “reboot,” as it were, is my best option. I’m a standard Floridian with an upside down mortgage, home zoo, complicated legal issues in other states, and an Escalade with 24” Dubs. Cordially, Ms. Tified in Miami-Dade
First, let me say that in regards to your being a standard Floridian, you have my sympathies. Though your home zoo sounds intriguing. Do you have pandas? Because Jim Treacher loves pandas. Especially when cooked medium rare. But considering that as of this writing, 74 unfortunate souls have in fact perished due to Hurricane Sandy, I’d have to be a monster or an MSNBC anchor to make the hurricane about something other than what it is about: the loss of life, the destruction of entire cities, and one of the scariest weather events in a decade that is shaping up to be almost nothing but.
But what you’re doing is normal. You’re asking the question most selfless Americans these days ask during times of great national consequence: “how does it affect me?” So that this question is not really about Sandy at all, it’s about you, Ms. Tified, which incidentally, would be an excellent handle if you decide to make a fresh go of it in Florida’s robust hip-hop community.
Here is an uncomfortable truth. For most of us, it’s really hard not to watch calamity unfold. Even for me personally — when reporting from places like a smoldering post 9/11 Manhattan, or post-Katrina New Orleans, or post-earthquake Haiti — the cliché rings true: we are never quite so alive as when we’re rubbing elbows with death. All of the sudden, concerns such as why my ice-maker isn’t cranking out enough ice or why my Weed Eater won’t start on the first pull, find their rightful place at the bottom of the Hierarchy of Misfortunes.
The threat of annihilation is something that commands our full attention, that forces us to clock our relation to it. Perhaps this is because it reminds us that we dodged a bullet ourselves, and as Churchill said, “There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result.” Was the sense of relief I felt, after spending the better part of a night trenching my yard in a driving rain in order to divert water from my basement during Sandy, diminished or enhanced because places like Union Beach, New Jersey were nearly totaled by the same storm? The ugly answer is probably both. Enhanced, because the same fate didn’t befall me or mine — a fact that despite my preparations, I had literally no control over. Diminished, because watching my drenched, newly homeless, terrified-out-of-their-minds fellow human beings suffering reminds us all that the bubble of security we like to hope we inhabit could be punctured at any moment. And when that moment comes, you often lose more than your material possessions — you lose your entire frame of reference. To think it can’t happen to you is worse than arrogance. It’s foolishness.
So my strong advice is don’t use such an occasion to fake your own death, even if it’s for the purpose of starting anew. First, the real thing will come along inevitably enough. Don’t tempt it into visiting prematurely. The incontrovertible fact of human existence is that nobody gets out of it alive. The Grim Reaper has a near perfect batting average. Jesus reportedly beat him, with some wily pitching and by arising from the grave on the third day. But you’re not Jesus, no matter how much you take His name in vain.
Second, another life-threatening storm will probably come along shortly. I live in Maryland, a place well-known for its crabs, its greedhead tax-hiking governor (Martin O’Malley), and its comparatively moderate mid-Atlantic weather. Yet we have enjoyed the earthquakes of California, the tornadoes of Kansas, and the hurricanes of a Caribbean isle — all in the last year. Call it flukey weather patterns, call it global warming, call it the wrath of God on Martin O’Malley (I tend to hope it’s the latter). But whatever it is, the not-normal appears to be the new normal. So if we’re getting this in Maryland, just imagine how screwed you are in Florida.
Lastly, the whole point of you faking your own death is to escape, which I can relate to. I’ve done it myself. You think I was born as Matt Labash, pillar of his community, Tony-Award winner, lust object of screaming teenagers, and second or third most important faux advice columnist in the land? No. I used to be Philip Michael Thomas, until I faked my own death, and started over. Though believe you me, I could still do this at karaoke night if I had to.
But here’s the thing about escape. You can flee your mortgage company, your Escalade repo man, your panda zoo. All of this is easily enough done with a little bit of ingenuity, a full tank of gas, and proper fake identification. It’s much harder, however, to escape yourself. As Emerson wrote:
At home, I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.
Matt Labash is a senior writer with the Weekly Standard magazine. His book, “Fly Fishing With Darth Vader: And Other Adventures with Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys,” is now available in paperback from Simon and Schuster. Have a question for Matt Labash? Submit it here.