Swimming with Sharks
An Aquarian visits the Aquarium.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
I visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Sunday to take advantage of the free admission policy for local residents and the joint was jumping.
The deal, which is on through Dec. 14, is a way for the institution to give back to the community– and attract a somewhat different crowd, one suspects, than its customary rates allow.
There were tourists around, but also many Mexican-American families taking their young children, nose pressed against the glass, to marvel at the jellyfish, laugh at the playful otters. Maybe they would have come regardless, on school trips or family outings, but it was nice to see a diverse group in the upscale venue.
It was a welcome respite from the world outside, where bad news has been piling up at an alarming rate.
Coincidentally, the Weekly staff had made a trek to the Aquarium the week before for a retreat to assess where we’re at and where we are going, a chance for the people who work at the paper to renew their commitment, even in difficult times. Especially in difficult times.
As people struggled to put feelings into words, a member of the group mentioned quizzically: “One word I haven’t heard is hope. Isn’t hope what everyone has been talking about all year?’’
The answer is obvious:
As the economy tanks at home and bombs explode in Mumbai, hope has been overtaken by another emotion: fear.
HOPE HAS BEEN OVERTAKEN BY ANOTHER EMOTION: FEAR.
When Barack Obama was running as the candidate of change, one doubts this was what he had in mind. Far easier to run as the guy who opposed the invasion of Iraq, the failed policies of the Bush administration and a post-Boomer alternative to the Clinton years than as someone who’s expected to solve our dilemmas. Now.
The feeding frenzy continues, automakers succeeding bankers, layoffs upon layoffs.
In our business, the news has been equally grim: The Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy this week. Closer to home, one competitor announced major layoffs and another unveiled a slimmer product. We face our own challenges and take no pleasure in others’ pain.
Covering the meltdown is part of our job but may not help matters.
As New York Times media columnist David Carr recently observed: “Every modern recession includes a media séance about how horrible things are and how much worse they will be, but there have never been so many ways for the fear to leak in. The same digital dynamics that drove the irrational exuberance– and marketed the loans to help it happen– are now driving the downside in unprecedented ways.”
Carr also noted the “emotional contagion” around us.
“With unemployment, auto sales, home foreclosures and consumer confidence all benchmarking historic levels of distress, news outlets are hardly making it up. But the machinery of the economy began to freeze in place far more quickly than it has in the past, in part because so much scary data is circulating so much faster than it used to. This recession got deeper faster because we knew more bad stuff quickly.”
Back at the Aquarium, we watched the leopard sharks circle peacefully with other fish.
“We kept them in a separate tank for a year, until they got used to being fed and no longer felt the need to attack,” a volunteer patiently explained. “When they were good to go, we let them in with the others.”
And after watching a film about overfishing and the ravages of shortsighted environmental policy, every visitor was handed a card from Seafood Watch, offering a Sustainable Seafood guide (available at www.seafoodwatch.org).
The message was a positive, if mindful one. Yes, we can do something about this issue– it is not outside our control.
Some perhaps banal observations come to mind:
If we can find a way to save endangered species, maybe we can do something about our own. If sharks can be taught to curb their aggressive instincts, so too can gangs in Salinas or glorified gang members in Mumbai.
In this week’s cover story package, the Weekly takes a somewhat sardonic look at the “holiday spirit”– the pressures of unhealthy family dynamics, false expectations, pushing the wrong buttons.
But without succumbing to the treacle, it’s worth remembering that those of us who have family and friends to fall back on are lucky. Looking over your shoulder in fear of circumstances you have no control over won’t help you keep your job.
We may live in the Age of Ambien but sleepless nights won’t make for productive days.
It’s time to step back and to step up– but remember that you, not others, get to define your value.
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,’’ Eleanor Roosevelt famously noted.
You can swim with the sharks without becoming one.