mapping the DOW’s 778 point decline and annie dillard

The New York Times once again comes through with another excellent mapping of a calamitous event: the largest one-day decline in market history (see also their very well done interactive video timeline of events). The graphic maps the DOW’s decline against the vote in the House of Representatives, which killed the Bailout Plan:

This time it is our retirement accounts which are taking the hit. Not passing the $700 billion bailout cost American’s $1.1 trillion.

Days like this recall Annie Dillard’s spectacular 1998 Harper’s Magazine piece, “The Wreck of Time” (which later became her phenomenal book, published in 2000, For the Time Being). A few excerps:

Ted Bundy, the serial killer, after his arrest, could not fathom the fuss.  What was the big deal?  David Von Drehle quotes an exasperated Bundy in Among the Lowest of the Dead: “I mean, there are so many people.”

One R. Houwink, of Amsterdam, uncovered this unnerving fact: The human population of earth, arranged tidily, would just fit into Lake Windermere, in England’s Lake District.

Recently in the Peruvian Amazon a man asked the writer Alex Shoumatoff, “Isn’t it true that the whole population of the United States can be fitted into their cars?”

How are we doing in numbers, we who have been alive for this most recent installment of human life?  How many people have lived and died?

. . .

HEAD-SPINNING NUMBERS CAUSE MIND TO GO SLACK, the Hartford Courant says.  But our minds must not go slack.  How can we think straight if our minds go slack?  We agree we want to think straight.

Anyone’s close world of family and friends composes a group smaller than almost all sampling errors, a group invisible, at whose loss the world would not blink.  Two million children die a year from diarrhea, and 800,000 from measles.  Do we blink?  Stalin starved 7 million Ukrainians in one year, Pol Pot killed 1 million Cambodians, the flu epidemic of 1918 killed 21 or 22 million people… shall this go on?  Or do you suffer, as Teilhard de Chardin did, the sense of being “an atom lost in the universe”?  Or do you not suffer from this sense?  How about what journalists call “compassion fatigue”?  Reality fatigue?  At what limit for you do other individuals blur?  Vanish?  How old are you?

. . .

Los Angeles airport has 25,000 parking spaces.  This is about one space for every person who died in 1985 in Colombia when a volcano erupted.  This is one space for each of the corpses of more than two years’ worth of accidental killings from leftover land mines of recent wars.  At five to a car, almost all the Inuit in the world could park at LAX.  Similarly, if you propped up or stacked four bodies to a car, you could fit into the airport parking lot all the corpses from the firestorm bombing of Tokyo in March 1945, or the corpses of Londoners who died in the plague, or the corpses of Burundians killed in civil war since 1993.  But you could not fit America’s homeless there, not even at twenty to a car.

I used to assign this essay to my composition students when I taught Expository Writing at Rutgers University in the late 1990s. The essay floored them, confused them, confronted them with figures and statistics and geographies the likes of which they had never conceived. It challenged every preconceived notion they ever had about writing, language, the structure of a sentence, the sound of words. Yet because of the immensity of the topics being discussed, of its plea to focus on the single one in a million, students wrote the most imaginative and amazing academic essays, replete with detail and specificity and risk that they had yet to show in their prior 4 papers.

Last week we couldn’t fathom what $700 billion meant. Now we are asked to imagine $1.1 trillion. We ask, “How many zeros is that?” Eleven zeros—in both numbers. And, yet, I can no closer imagine a string of 11 zeros in my head than I can imagine a tower of 1.1 trillion dollar bills stretching from the halls of Congress up into oblivion.

This is why Dillard’s piece is so precient at this moment in time: “our minds must not go slack.  How can we think straight if our minds go slack?  We agree we want to think straight.” Thinking, wrestling, challenging our minds—and asking for leaders who can, will, and want to do the same.

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