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“More terrible than any scenario I could have imagined”

The title is a quote from Douglas Coupland’s “Shampoo Planet”. It has been on my mind for a while. I wrote last week about trying to find quotes from books that I read many years ago, and how good it would be to have my entire “library” on a Kindle (or other eBook), for search purposes. I managed to find this “Shampoo Planet” quote in some of the millions of words that I’ve been typing over the last ten years. I have every Douglas Coupland book “on vinyl”, not in electronic format, and couldn’t remember exactly which book this came from. I tried the usual online search engine, without success, and was pleased that I could find it within 5 minutes, in my own “digital notebooks” (from words typed in early 2011).

Here’s the context for the quote, and why I’ve been thinking about it.

The Mount St Helen’s volcanic eruption of 1980 brought devastation to parts of North America. “Shampoo Planet” mentions “tourists helicoptering in to view the ruins”. They mistake the “clear-cuts”, where loggers have ripped out whole forests, for the after-effects of the volcano, and say, “Oh my God, this is more terrible than any scenario I could have imagined.” They believed that they were surveying the scene of a natural disaster but it was part of the usual economic life of that part of the country.

We often mistake events from the ordinary day-to-day lives of others for something exceptional, something “more terrible than any scenario” we might imagine. We might have thought that things were bad, but not that bad. We avoid thinking too hard about the relentless daily problems that others are facing.

In recent months some members of my family have said and written the worst things that anyone has ever said to me or written to me. Some supportive friends have been shocked by what happened. I still am. But it’s not a once-in-a-lifetime event, like the eruption of Mount St Helen’s. It’s more like the predictable consequences of living in an economy built on chopping down trees. And it’s only words. Nobody has been confined to a wheelchair, or diagnosed with leukaemia or a brain tumour, unlike the friends we have lost over the last year.

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