Under the Big, Dark Cloud

The cleansing effect of fire on so much of our distractions

Everything‘s on fire! Civilization is burning! Egypt—Egypt! The cradle of civilization—is collapsing. Not that anyone in America knows why—chaos in the cradle of civilization is a font crawling along the bottom of Headline News. Because we’re mad!

Mad about Zimmerman! A plot we can grasp! Race divisions played out again in the justice system theater, now available with riveting analysis 85 hours a day, eight excruciating days a week. But wait—Bieber peed in a janitor’s bucket and insulted a photo of Bill Clinton. Hot!

But wait! Fire Island is back in business! Gays are getting married everywhere! Civilization is burning! On CNN! Or maybe it was Fox. More on this after a shot of a burning airplane fuselage and a joke about Asian pilots’ names. More on that after tossing around the phrase “Berlin Wall” in on-air chats about the Texas border. We’re mad about gays, blacks, Mexicans, Asians, racists and that traitor Edward Snowden, to the extent that we can understand what the hell he did. Tear that wall down! (But save the pieces for Texas!)

Reason is on fire! The No. 1 argument CNN.com gave that “Americans should care about Egypt” was: tourism! And why bother with actual Egypt when you’ve got Las Vegas?

This is what I contemplated while rotating above Las Vegas in the Top of the World restaurant at the Stratosphere: According to some travel survey that surveyed someone, the top wonder of the world—in the sense of quality, coolness, wonderfulness—is actually … the Bellagio Fountains! Yes indeed! The water-dancing engineering marvel just a few miles down the road from, say, the place where the majestic Colorado River became a power source for the entire Southwest. Pretty heady stuff! Water dancing to Lee Greenwood! Smoke coming out of our ears! Our brains are on fire right here in River City! Double down with a steady stream of national reports about Las Vegas’ efforts to turn Fremont’s historic blight into a millennial lunchroom with recycled shipping containers, and there’s really no reason to look beyond this little cradle of civilization. We’re on fire!

Except, then, not to be a downer, but: We’re actually on fire. First there was smoke, from the other side of Mount Charleston; still vaguely ignorable. Then our beloved mountain getaway was evacuated, and smoke filled the Valley, and for days, it rolled downhill, smoke, flames, hopelessness, helplessness. Although we tried to categorize it as just another media event—safely glazed into the surreal TV screen—we couldn’t. Not with that dark cloud growing, with somber reports saying the lightning-caused behemoth was 14 percent contained, 10 percent contained …

We are not a community that takes kindly to having our frailties pointed out. Social services? Education? Culture? The recession? Here’s our chin, take your best shot. We’re still standing. But fire—so vast, so powerful. After making light of so much bullshit in our lives, there’s no spinning away from this. After ignoring as much of the world’s troubles as we can, there’s no ignoring this. We took deep, hacking breaths and realized our self-centered cradle of civilization has nothing on Mother Nature. We can bend the Colorado and light up the night sky, claw our way back into a real estate market, sit in a restaurant called the Top of the World and look down at miniature, meaningless Egypt, France and Italy, but it would take the mercy of the universe, of nature, of a good rain, to deliver us from such a fire.

It’s humbling. It should be.