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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Tragedy too often leads to detachment

Rebecca Nappi The Spokesman-Review

When my nieces, Gretchen and Nichole, were 12, their biggest worry was their hair. One night, in the mid-‘80s, my husband and I picked them up to take them out to dinner. Their hair was swept into side ponytails with puffed-out bangs as high as suburban hedges. Here was their conversation:

Nichole: “My hair looks terrible.”

Gretchen: “No, my hair!!”

Nichole: “Your hair looks great, but my hair!”

Now, Nichole and Gretchen are 31. Most days, Nichole wears a ball cap and jeans, the perfect uniform for the busiest stay-at-home mom I know. Gretchen, a pharmaceutical rep in Los Angeles, has a professional woman’s haircut. These two nieces, cousins born just six weeks apart, don’t talk about their hair much anymore. They have deeper issues to ponder.

Two weeks ago, for instance, Gretchen was driving down a California freeway when a semitruck tire blew off and raced toward her windshield. By some miracle, the tire missed the windshield and sideswiped her car’s front end, blasting the airbags, but sparing her life.

After I talked with Gretchen about her near miss, I felt nostalgic for the days when these nieces worried mostly about their hair. Life seemed simpler, even if it might not have been. But there’s no going back. And there’s really nothing I can do to stop random tragedies from visiting their lives.

When the Pakistan earthquake hit Oct. 8, I felt a similar sense of helplessness, but I couldn’t muster up much emotion, even though 80,000 people died. I sensed that I wasn’t alone in this emotional detachment. Though the earthquake garnered solid media coverage in its first days, news of it has now pretty much disappeared.

I call it the Pakistan Paradox. Pakistan’s earthquake would have dominated the news much longer had it occurred just two years ago. But it came after the tsunami that hit in December 2004, in which between 175,000 to 275,000 people were killed.

The financial and emotional response to the tsunami by people in the United States was generous, admirable and sincere. By Hurricane Katrina, a much lesser tragedy but shocking just the same, people’s pocketbooks and hearts had been refilled. And they gave generously again.

But when Pakistan’s earthquake hit, people felt tragedied out. And soon after the earthquake, Hurricane Wilma made its move on Mexico and Florida. Much closer to home. So out Pakistan went – out of the news, out of mind, out of compassion.

While contemplating the Pakistan Paradox, I read recent revelations that Michael Brown, former FEMA head, fretted about his fine-dining options in the South while Katrina evacuees dined in the Superdome’s Circle of Hell restaurant.

I also read in the New Yorker about efforts by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to eradicate malaria in poor countries, where millions die of it each year.

Despite the huge number of victims, Kent Campbell, former chief of the malaria branch at the Centers for Disease Control, told the New Yorker: “I don’t think most Americans give a rat’s ass about the death of millions of African kids each year.”

I am 20 years older than Nichole and Gretchen, and I often tell them what to expect from each of life’s decades. In your 30s, I say, any addictions – smoking, overdrinking, overeating – start to do lasting damage to your face and psyche.

In your 40s, if you allow time for soul searching, you’ll see how all your different life experiences form the roots of wisdom. I don’t know about the 50s yet; I’m new here.

But I suspect that nearly every day in our 50s, we’ll receive reports of tragedy, illness, sorrow – in our personal lives and in the public arena. We can react to these events with intellectual detachment, the Pakistan Paradox, or withdraw into self-absorption, Brownie-style.

Or we can say what the heck, it seems impossible to do much, but let’s at least try to eradicate global malaria, let’s at least try to care about Pakistan. It matters, after all.

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