Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Ashpocalypse Now

Nine years ago last month, 15-year-old Charles Andrew Williams shot up a high school in Santee, Calif., killing two people and wounding 13 others. I was working for news station KGTV at the time and as you would expect, all focus that day (and for several consecutive days) turned to the events in that otherwise unremarkable San Diego suburb. We had no less than three reporters broadcasting live from different areas on and around campus, themselves part of the great throng of reporters from San Diego's dozens of news outlets, as well as those from Los Angeles and elsewhere, all flooding to the town in order to watch attractive middle-class teenagers do what they do best -- behave melodramatically -- and interview the occasional batshit crazy parent insisting that teachers be allowed to carry firearms. I would like to think that of all of them, we did the best job.

But what I remember most from that day was the tiny, almost insignificant moment when one of our reporters accidentally gave away one of the truths of journalism. Standing on the campus with heavily armed police officers stomping about behind her and the first wave of sexy teens starting to cry, she told our anchor live on air: "It's really exciting out here."

The statement went unnoticed by everyone other than myself, most likely interpreted to mean that the situation was still rather unclear. But to me the truth was out: journalists love when shit gets fucked up. She was expressing what every one of us back in the newsroom felt: "Wow! This is awesome!"

It's not that we were enjoying the death and misery. That part was no fun at all; I can remember one of our anchors retreating to her office to cry. But the chaos of it is what's delightful. There is a thrill-joy in fucked up shit, the simple disarray, the normal order of things being upset.

Unfortunately, fucked up shit more often than not involves death and destruction and misery. If newsrooms aren't careful (and very few American newsrooms are), one gets confused for the other and pursuit of misery becomes central. In essence, that's why I left the news business. It was wearing me down from within. The great journalists are either shallow, heartless bastards or those who possess a greater sense of zen and universal perspective than myself.

All of which leads to why the continuing saga of the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic ash cloud is quite possibly my favourite news event ever. I am loving the ashpocalypse!

No planes in the sky for a week is definitely fucked up. In air travel terms, things have never been as fucked up as this.

Additionally, the story involves fire. A fucking mountain of fire! How awesome is that?! The No. 1 rule of journalism is that if something is on fire there are no other rules.

And, of course, you've got your human interest side of the thing: the constant parade of unconvincingly miserable Middle England and North Wales types "trapped" on holiday in Spain. Sky News especially likes to hear their stories, showing family after family stoically resigned to their fate of spending yet another day drinking sangria poolside. Stiff upper lip chaps, you're an inspiration to all of us back home.

Delightfully, though, no one is dead because of it. Inconvenieced, yes, but not dead. Families are not being destroyed. Faith is not being tested. Hope is not being lost. This is the best fucked up situation since a tornado resulted in me and Dani making out under a coffee table in high school.

Huzzah the ashpocalypse, I say. Huzzah!


Robert Humphries said...

Good post, Chris, although I'll point out that I've heard of a few situations where medical supplies and bone marrow for transplants have been delayed. That's worrying. For the most part though, you're right about it being a massive inconvenience rather than a tragedy.

Last I heard, the mayor of Madison and his staff are stuck in Amsterdam, by the way.

Jenny said...

Poor Icelandic farmers, though! Crops are destroyed and cattle poisoned. But yes, here in the UK it's all 'stranded on honeymoon, the horror' etc.

Anonymous said...

Actually it's OK by me. Scheduled to have a meeting tomorrow with someone who I can't stand - had a message this morning to say she is stuck in Berlin. Result !!!.

May it erupt for a few more weeks yet (please stop in June as I'm off to Spain on holiday in July for 3 weeks....)


Lisa Derrick said...

That volcano name really is special. I saw some people who'd been brought home by the Navy on TV today. They looked genuinely delighted!

Dani said...

I'm glad I rank up there with Eyjafjallajökull.

God bless tornadoes.