All Alone

I’ve been reading The Martian by Andy Weir   Made into an Oscar-nominated movie that I haven’t yet seen, the book tells the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut on a Mars expedition who is injured and lost in a blistering sandstorm and presumed dead by his crewmates.  They leave because the sandstorm threatens to wreck their exit vehicle and their ability to get home, and Watney then finds himself abandoned on Mars, with no means of communicating with Earth.

The book’s careful recounting of Watney’s efforts to use the remnants of the expedition supplies to create water, grow food, and stay alive long enough to be rescued — and later, the discovery of NASA that he is still alive and the efforts to get him home before he starves — is riveting.  I can’t attest to the engineering and practical science involved in Watney’s development of soil capable of growing potatoes or his cannibalization of rovers to create a vehicle capable of a long-distance journey, but they have the ring of authenticity, and you can’t help but applaud his ingenuity.

the-martian-matt-damonAll of this occurs, though, against the backdrop of a bigger human drama:  a person left all alone on an alien planet, with no means of communicating to fellow members of his species, and always on the ragged edge of death from starvation or the hostile Martian environment. How would any person cope with such absolute solitude?  Watney establishes a journal to maintain a conversation of sorts, and he goes through the music, book, and TV selections left behind by his former crewmates — and pays the price by enduring disco music and the complete episodes of Three’s Company.   But even the syncopated efforts of the Bee Gees and feeble comedic antics of Jack Tripper and his roommates Chrissy and Janet, and the human interaction they reflect, are preferable to complete isolation.  In effect, the journal, the songs, and the TV shows are Watney’s version of Wilson, the volleyball who became Tom Hanks’ only companion on Cast Away.

Watney’s got a great sense of humor and a never say die mentality that allows him to deal with his predicament, but as you read the book you can’t help but wonder how you would deal with total abandonment on a desolate, alien planet — assuming, of course, that you had the botanical and engineering training that would allow you to survive using the same steps Watney followed.  After the initial zeal for trying to survive, how would you react after weeks and weeks of drudgery, with no actual communication or direct human interaction of any kind?  It’s hard to imagine that even good TV, music, and reading material could fill that void and allow you to maintain the positive attitude that would be essential to survival.  Most of us, I suspect, would just stop caring and give up.

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Dying Alone

This New York Times piece on the lonely death of George Bell is one of the most interesting and poignant pieces I’ve read lately.  Interesting, because it dives deeply into the machinery of public administration and the sleuthing process followed when a person dies alone, and poignant, because George Bell died without family or friends.

Bell lived alone in his apartment in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens.  He died there in 2014 at age 72.  The authorities aren’t sure exactly when he died, because his body was found only after a neighbor noticed a rank smell and called the police.  When the police arrived, in the middle of July, they found a body that had been decomposing for days in an apartment crammed with the kinds of possessions and mystifying mountains of garbage and other stuff that hoarders inevitably accumulate.  The condition of the body was such that they couldn’t initially confirm it was Bell — which required some of the sleuthing described in the story — and he had no wife, or family, or friends to identify his remains.

The Times piece is a long one.  It carefully traces the steps that are followed when a person is found dead, alone, in New York City, and in so doing it also tells some of the back story of George Bell.  He was an only child.  He worked for a time for his father, served in the U.S. Army Reserves, and began working in the moving business.  After his father died and his mother became crippled by arthritis, he took care of her.  He drank, and was known to some friends as “Big George.”  He never married, although he came close.  He was a diabetic.  He was injured at work in 1996 and began living on disability payments and a union pension — and one by one, he began to snip away his connections to the world.  After thirty years of growing isolation, his last regular acquaintance was a person he had met at his regular bar.

I’ve always thought the most terrifying part of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol wasn’t the appearance of Marley’s ghost, or Scrooge’s visit to his gravesite, but the scene at his deathbed, where Scrooge lies, dead, alone, and unmourned, while his belongings are looted by people who felt no pity for him.  In that respect, George Bell was like a modern-day Scrooge, dying without leaving much of a mark on the world around him.

It’s a sad story, but also a compelling one.  One of the workers whose job is to ferret through the apartments of lonely people like George Bell, looking for evidence of relatives, has drawn upon his macabre job to consciously try to build his circle of friends and his connections to the world.  “I don’t want to die alone,” he says.

Poorly Conceived Hotel Lobby Art

IMG_6244Tuesday night I had a bad commuting experience and got in to my hotel in D.C. late at night.  Exhausted and bedraggled, I slunk into the hotel lobby, checked in at the reception desk, and headed toward the elevator to get to my room and drop off my bags.

And there I saw . . . this.  A perfectly good sculpture, I suppose, in a normal setting.  In a museum, people might pause to examine it and remark upon its craftsmanship.  But the last thing a tired traveler needs to see on the way to a strange room in strange hotel in a strange city is a depiction of a distraught man folded in on himself, his head cupped in his hands — the very picture of despair and dejection.

Here’s a tip for hotel interior decorators — when you’re selecting art for the lobby, anything that conveys deep depression and loneliness probably isn’t a really good idea.