Sunday, July 31, 2005

And which would you choose?

My recent discovery that I have some hearing loss caused me to think about a car wreck, long ago. I can't remember the year offhand, but I remember the time of year; it was August during the annual Perseid meteor shower. I was disappointed that the peak was during the daylight, an invisible bombardment; under the unseen crackling lights, sands of a broken comet were being gravitated clean by recurrent decades of our summer passage.

I had bought groceries and had loaded them into my old red Volkswagon. Driving home from the grocery store, I remember seeing, out of the corner of my eye, a car not stop at a stop sign. The realization that it wasn't stopping was the only thought I had time for; then I was whirling around in the air after a terrific impact, and then I was staggering out of my car which had been totally demolished.

I was surprised that I could walk. I was covered with blood but I somehow knew I had not been really hurt. My car looked like it had been dropped out of an airplane. The blood gushing from my scalp mixed with the milk and orange juice gurgling with galoop galoop galoop noises from the wrecked car. There were smashed bananas all over the street. The Pontiac I had run into had stopped, with hardly a dent in it. My knee hurt pretty badly as I hobbled over to the other car. People had come out and were standing in their front yards, staring. The driver of the Pontiac was an old man breathing from a tube connected to an oxygen bottle. His passenger, a middle-aged woman, said, "He has emphysema," like that was what we were talking about. He looked OK, but did not say anything, and did not get out of the car.

I walked over to an onlooker who was standing on his front porch and said, "Can I borrow your phone?" He hesitated. I said "Sorry about the blood." He said "Sure", and showed me inside. I called a friend to pick me up.

A cop pulled up. The first thing he said was, "Do you want an ambulance? I can call one for you," because I looked like I needed one, and I said no. The old man just sat there the whole time. The cop walked over and wrote him a ticket. His daughter drove him home in his own car. My car was hauled away by a tow truck. It was the only serious wreck I had ever been in, and I wrote down all my impressions as soon as I got home from the emergency room where my friend took me to get my scalp and knee sewed up.

But this is not a story of my car wreck. The people who came out of their houses said it made a tremendous heavy-metal WHAM! But my awareness of what was going on was entirely visual and tactile and I did not have any impression of a noise. Except for the silent internal "oof" that occurs when your body runs into something too hard.

Why should one's consciousness select for visual awareness during emergencies? I suspect it is that eyesight is the most important thing for primates when it comes to saving themselves. On the other hand, it may be that my experience is unique, and that other wreck victims hear noise.

When I was in Paraguay I found out that, in response to the strangely artificial question, "Which would you rather be, if you had to choose, blind or deaf?" most of the Paraguayans polled would rather be blind. This struck me as peculiar, and so I occasionally asked Americans and only one said he would prefer blindness to deafness, and he was a professional musician. All the others preferred deafness, although sometimes they would think about it a while, reconsider, and change their answer. I don't know if Paraguayans hear during car wrecks.

I'd prefer not to choose, but at this point in my life, if I had to...I'd flip a coin.

That night I remember thinking about the rocks overhead decelerating into long splinters of fire, then quenched in the moonlight. Where do the ashes of meteors go? We probably breathe them all our lives.

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