Friday, November 30, 2018

You’re safe from falling trees, probably; from opioids, not so much


     People exaggerate their proximity to death. "But I was just in Pittsburgh last spring!" I'm not sure why. To scrape up a frisson of excitement, I suppose. Or to feel significant, and turn attention back to themselves. Those sound right.
     So I want to be careful when describing what happened Monday. There had been a big storm the night before, as you remember, heavy snow, high winds, flights cancelled, power lines snapping.
     Monday morning, 6 a.m., my thoughts focused on firing up my mighty Ariens snow thrower, the pride of Wisconsin, a crouching orange beast with a light and its own little shovel, that had waited all spring, summer and fall under a tarp in my garage.
     But my wife counseled that 6:30 a.m. is too early. People are sleeping. Why not walk the dog first? This seemed a shirking of my snowblowing responsibilities—I could have our block clear in a jiffy!—but I yielded to her good sense, and leashed our dog, Kitty.
     Outside the front door, I thought I would address our front steps—easy to shovel before you trample down the snow—and Kitty went bolting off to a corner of our yard after a squirrel, which scampered up a walnut tree. That usually keeps the dog—whose brain is about the size of a walnut—occupied, standing on her hind legs, and looking up the trunk, waiting for the squirrel to come back down and be friendly.
     I finished the front steps, scrapping away the dense, wet snow. I might have had less than a minute to live, depending on what I did next. I headed toward Kitty, but rather than wait for me, she bolted off toward the street. My neighbor, Bill, was walking toward us, heading for the train. He snagged her leash.
     Normally I wouldn't engage in conversation—Bill has those trains timed to the second. But as I took the leash, he said something about the snowblower, or maybe I said something. I explained my wife had held me back, and asked if he wanted me to clear his walk. He said no, his high schooler was asleep, and he'd do it. I was standing at the foot of my driveway, just beyond a line of six 70-year-old, 50-foot-tall evergreen trees. Bill and I were maybe 15 feet apart, me on the sidewalk, he in the street.
     There was a noise, a kind of piny rending. I looked to the left, and the trunk of the tree was moving.
     "Step back! Step back!" I yelled, looking around for Kitty, who was leading the charge away.
     When I turned back, the tree was across the street, spanning it like a bridge, blocking my view of Bill.
     "Are you OK?" I said.
     He was OK. Not a scratch. The tree fell between us.
     Causes of death are in the news; the American life span is shrinking for the first time in nearly a century, thanks to suicide and the opioid epidemic. Overdose is the leading cause of death for those under 55.
     Where does being killed by a tree fit in?
     I searched for stats and couldn't find any, but did find Prof. Thomas W. Schmidlin of Kent State University, who spent his career analyzing windstorms and their fatalities, and studied trees as a cause of death.
     "That's why we did the research, 10 years ago," he said. "I was curious and couldn't find it."
     They crunched data from 1995 to 2007 and came up with 407 fatalities over 13 years from "wind-related tree failure."
     "It's not a big number, compared to all other risks we face in our daily lives," he said. "But it is important."
     I sure think so, now. Though my brush with the Pale Rider was due to ice, not wind.
     "We did look at that, yes," said Schmidlin. "We found 14 people - one a year - killed by a tree branch or whole tree overburdened by snow or ice."
     Very rare, but it does happen. Schmidlin mentioned Molly Glynn, the actress killed in Winnetka in 2014 when a tree limb blew down and struck her while she was bicycling.
     "The map of where these deaths occur from fallen trees are the intersection of where people and trees are," he said. "You don't see many deaths in the Great Plains, or the Rocky Mountains. All the fatalities are from Chicago and Houston eastward and in the Pacific Northwest. A lot of people and a lot of trees."
     Here's the odd thing. My heart never raced. I was never scared. In the days since, a certain happy-not-to-be-dead sense has lingered. I can't help but think of all the places where I've been worried about my safety, from the waterfront of Naples to the Cite Soleil slum in Port-au-Prince. The times I screwed up my courage to head into a CHA housing project or joined a sandbag line trying to hold back the rising Mississippi. Every time I thought, "Oh, this is dangerous." And the closest I come to buying the ranch in my life is on an ordinary Monday morning, walking the dog in front of my house on a quiet street in a quiet suburb.
     Well, that's life for you. Avoid those opioids. Trees, you're safe from. Unless you're that one person a year whose number comes up. Then you're not.


  1. Death. The longer we live the more death becomes something that is coming for us, too. Almost everyone believes at one point that they are the one who will cheat death.
    Opioid addiction will bring the thought of death to you on a daily basis. If an Opioid overdose doesn't kill the addict, death by suicide probably will. The physical and psychological dependency can be so overwhelming that death becomes a daily option. Replacement programs, like methadone, are helpful. But the realization that you're just replacing one addiction for anotheris psychologically damaging.
    Sorry. Off subject.
    So glad that you survived your brush with death, and appreciate the fact that it was mere inches away.

  2. That tree certainly was a close call. More common are fatal traffic accidents, but I was never in an accident severe enough for an air bag to deploy. Walking quickly to get home before an approaching storm could unleash a downpour, I felt a strange tingling all over with hair standing on end. Lightning hit a streetlight about 100 feet away. It's a nice benefit for urban living, having a vast matrix of lightning rods to protect you. Just take to heart the admonition, when in a park don't stand under a large tree when it rains, it's safer to get wet.
    There is another rare cause of death. In old cemeteries tombstones can slowly settle and tilt. The slightest bump can be very dangerous. Once in Waldheim Jewish Cemetery, where fallen headstones are a common sight, off in the distance I heard a loud FTHUMP. Management means business when they place those stickers on many monuments, danger do not lean on gravestones.

  3. Just reading about your adventure revved my heart up and I'm sure many others as well.

    On my daily early morning walks, when the wind is gusting pushing the tree limbs side to side, I keep a sharp outlook for falling trees, not that would likely help. I'm reminded of the signs on mountain roads in California warning drivers to watch out for falling rocks. Really? If I remember correctly, Neil ran a column a few years ago discussing the legal efficacy of signs downtown warning pedestrians of falling ice. I believe Philip Corboy told him the signs were a 2-edged sword.


  4. The first sentence of this column made me think of "The Luck of Jad Peters," which I'm sure that you, a fellow Thurber devotee, are familiar with.

    The only thing I've ever had that even remotely qualifies as a brush with death came many years ago, on an icy two-lane road. I lost control of my car and it started to drift into the path of an oncoming semi. After a panicked couple of seconds, I got the car under control and back to safety.

    No big deal, really, and I undoubtedly would have forgotten all about it years ago, except for one detail: The previous week, I'd written a news item about a fatal crash that had occurred at that exact spot. I remember thinking that if I had been killed, I hoped one of my colleagues would at least have mentioned the irony at the funeral.

  5. Neil - we have a deal. You enter the void after me. I need my morning EGD.

    As that giant of positive thinking, Samuel Becket, had a character say in Waiting for Godot: “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more.”

    Glad you got to write about it instead of it entering night once more.

  6. When I moved from Illinois to SoCal, I made a big detour through Bartlesville, Oklahoma, so I could see Price Tower, the only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed high-rise that was ever actually built. Drove 17 hours non-stop, saw the structure around lunchtime, and then pulled the van into a state park on U.S. 60 to cop some much-needed Zs.

    Slept for two or three hours, and awoke to find strong winds rocking the vehicle, stifling humidity, and tossing trees. And the proverbial green sky. I knew I had to get away from those trees, as the storm was going to be a bad one. Instead of looking for some shelter, I stupidly pulled back onto the highway and began driving west.

    Very heavy rain engulfed me and the visibility was near- zero...almost whiteout conditions. The rain let up quickly, but I could still only see a couple of hundred feet...just enough distance to be able to spot the tornado that passed across the highway from left to right. Not the first one I'd ever seen...but this one looked fairly strong. It was grayish-white, not brown or black. The next town I passed through--Pawhuska?--had some minor but very obvious storm damage.

    Ironically, this near-miss happened on Good Friday--April 20th, 1973. Since I'm Jewish, I've thought that might have some meaning, but all it probably meant was that I lucked out, and that it wasn't my time to die yet.

  7. Three years ago in my yard in Palatine, I was walking to my car in the driveway when I heard a loud thump from behind me. Turned around to see a large tree laying half on the grass and half on the driveway. About five feet away. Also caused by ice accumulation.
    Strangely, although it startled me for a moment, I didn’t think too much of it. It was somewhat surreal; perhaps the brain protecting me from a traumatic reaction?

    1. (Whoops, I meant to write that it was an extremely large tree LIMB, not a whole tree). Large enough to crush someone, no doubt of that.

  8. Glad you're fine. But you would have joined a unique club, "Killed by Tree"....Sonny Bono, Michael Kennedy. It would probably never be forgotten.

  9. Holy boils! Talk about hearing the whisper of the axe...

  10. Doesn't look like an accident to me. Looks like someone was trying to take you out. I'm glad they missed, but be careful.

  11. Being that close to death must have been a shocker. Did you feel that a guardian angel was watching over you? Do Jewish people believe in guardian angels? Hope this is not an inappropriate question — I really don’t know.

    1. Not an inappropriate question at all, though I'm not much of a spokesman for Jewish tradition. So, in answer to your questions: 1) Not at all; 2) I don't think so.

  12. I’ve since asked Google — seems to know everything — about angels and the Jewish religion. Google says Jews believe in angels. Google goes into detail about them. In fact, a mitzvah creates a guardian angel to protect an individual. Nice!


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