Monday, April 17, 2006

What's the Point of Reliving the Past?

This is going to be a busy day. The Pulitzer Prizes will be announced around 3 pm Pacific Time, and I will be eagerly hovering near my computer to find out who wins. These are the truly big awards in journalism and they always inspire me. Look for some Katrina-related coverage to prevail.

Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the San Francisco earthquake and I’ve decided to go all out. We’ve rented a hotel room in San Francisco and costumes from the local acting company and we will be at Lotta’s Fountain – along with 25,000 others – at 5:12 a.m., the time the quake struck.

I couldn’t decide whether to rent nightclothes or normal clothes. I am going with a cousin, and he chose nightclothes, arguing that the people would have rushed outdoors straight from their beds. But in all the pictures I’ve seen, everyone is wearing street clothes.

And I can tell you they didn’t put those clothes on in a hurry, either. I am going to be authentic, which means wearing a corset, and that underwear contraption requires at least five minutes to put on and lace up. Then there is the shirt waist and long skirt and jacket and …. Hat!

There has been a lot of talk in San Francisco about the appropriate way to acknowledge the disaster that destroyed one-quarter of the city. Gladys Hansen, the San Francisco archivist who spent years tallying an accurate death toll, will drop a wreath in the bay to commemorate the more than 3,000 who died. She has criticized all the spectacle as inappropriate.

I see her point. The disaster is in danger of becoming Disney-fied. But what appeals to me is the history of the event, the way it thrust the citizens of the city together. I recently met Bruce Quan, Jr. an associate professor at Peking University Law School, who told me that his great grandfather, a Chinese merchant, opened up his factory in Oakland as emergency housing for hundreds of displaced Chinese. City authorities had used the earthquake as a pretext to expel the Chinese. Continued prejudice made it hard for them to find places to stay, and this man’s relative helped out tremendously.

That one act mirrors so many social forces – benevolence, prejudice, desperation, kindness – and I find it interesting to ponder what it must have been like to be the subject of all those forces.

Of course, we are all subject of forces today, even though we may not be aware of it. Who knows, this era may be regarded as the lead-up to an American style tyranny, or the waning days of regular weather. We don’t know. It will be future generations who interpret our lives; they will be the ones who determine its significance.

I am not the only blogger who enjoys the grey area between today and yesterday. Susan Kitchens, who has a wonderful science-oriented blog (with some writing thoughts thrown in) 2020 Hindsight, tried to “real-time” blog the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the 50th anniversary.

1 comment:

Susan said...

Frances, you are amazing! What an incredible experience. I'm impressed. I hope you blog ALL about it.