Two things struck me. One was the sheer noise, from the PA announcer to the sound of crunching metal to the roar of the cars themselves, most of which just had straight pipes poked through the hood into the exhaust manifold. Mufflers are for sissies.
The other thing that struck me was how much some of these cars could take before they stopped running. They were getting smashed into by other drivers deliberately trying to take them out, and yet for all the damage they often managed to remain functional longer than I expected.
Teams of backyard mechanics patched the cars back together between heats. You could see the sparks from the cutting and welding torches they used in their automotive meatball surgery. Parts were replaced -- or bypassed -- to get the cars ready for the next onslaught. One of the winning cars could only go in reverse by the time the tournament was over, but it won regardless.
Most of us experience our cars as more fragile than that. The difference between "functional" and "street legal" is salient here, as is the fact that most of us don't have crews patching us back together after every trip. We're not smashing our cars into each other on purpose, for the most part, but our damage threshold is (practically speaking) much lower.
As a power-commuter (I make a four-hour round trip twice a week for my main teaching gig), I am constantly aware of the things that might go wrong and render me unable to get to work or back -- or worse, stranded somewhere in between. In the past year I've been pretty lucky, but that's after replacing one car and spending $5,000 fixing another.
The simple fact is that things break. Hard drives and other products are given something called an MTBF rating, which stands for Mean Time Before Failure (or Mean Time Between Failures, depending on the kind of system). Failure is a given; the only variable is how long before it happens.
This is true of everything. Relationships die. Families disintegrate. Civilizations crumble. Climates destabilize. Stars go supernova. I used to joke with my more theologically-minded friends that my eschatology -- my vision of the end times -- is "everybody dies."
The body-as-machine metaphor is problematic for a number of reasons, but the body is nevertheless a complex system that will eventually experience the catastrophic failure we call death. "On a long enough timeline," says the narrator of Fight Club, "the survival rate for everyone drops to zero."
I think about this sometimes when I'm feeding Willy or giving him his pills. He's got a brain disorder; there is something profoundly wrong with one of the most vital of bodily organs. This has led to the failure or at least the compromise of other systems -- and yet he is still very much alive. Dawn was told he might not make it past two years old, and we just celebrated his eleventh birthday.
Willy's situation is, at least statistically, more fragile than most of the rest of ours. The next seizure could be the one from which he doesn't recover. The next feeding could be the one that his body stops assimilating in the slow spiral of degeneration. The next virus that gets passed around could be the one that ends in a lethal bout of pneumonia, to which he is susceptible.
But it's a difference of degree rather than kind. We're all fragile in this sense. I could die tomorrow of an accident or an aneurysm, and Willy would outlive me. Or I could have any number of things go wrong and live on in defiance of the odds, as Willy has. Bodies are weird and unpredictable.
St. Benedict adjured his monks to meditate upon their own death. That sounds morbid, but it's probably good perspective. Everybody dies. Of course we have preferences about the timing, but beyond the statistical advantages of staying healthy and minimizing risks, we don't really get much say.
In my own nod to the Buddhist recognition of impermanence, I tend to expect that things will break, that plans will go wrong, that my attempts to budget will get wrecked. That everyone dies. This isn't pessimism. I'm not negative or morose. In those moments I have to confess that, deep down, I'm probably a nihilist, I always make sure to qualify it: "but I'm the happy kind."
This doesn't make me a pessimist any more than my expectation that good things will happen makes me an optimist. Of course good things will happen. They have. They do. Ditto bad things. I like it better when the former outweigh the latter but again, apart from statistical advantages I have no control over that.
If the universe doesn't owe me anything, then I can't be disappointed when I don't get it and I can't afford to be triumphalistic when I do. The good things that happen are either the consequence of things I hope I'm smart enough to repeat or they're random happenstance. Bad things are either the consequence of things I hope I'm smart enough to avoid or they, too, are just happenstance.
I'd like to beat the odds, but I might not. Not everyone can or the odds would be different to begin with. I'm okay with that.