Category Archives: Subway Incident/Nature of Bravery

My Segment on the Dr. Drew Show

If I had a bucket list, disagreeing with Anderson Cooper on national television would be on it.  And I would be crossing it off!

A few weeks ago, a man got pushed onto the tracks of a New York subway station.  Someone managed to take the picture below, which wound up on the cover of the Post.  You probably saw it.

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The next day, in the context of a national bitch session in which America heaped blame on bystanders for their inaction (including the cameraman) and their own culture for producing a population of cowards, I was asked to join a “panel of heroes” on the Dr. Drew show on HLN, a CNN sister channel, to talk about why we acted in the face of danger when others did not.  What was our awesome sauce?  Why did I reach out and grab the guy’s hand, who was getting shocked by the third rail, when I knew I could die?  (Checkout the 15 minutes of fame tab above, which I suppose now is my 15.5 minutes of fame, if you don’t know what I am talking about.)

Sorry it has taken a long time to post the video clip of my interview.  I know many of you have been waiting.  My segment is only 2 minutes and starts 12.5 minutes in. I was told the discussion with Anderson Cooper went long and they lost my feed for second.  But for what it’s worth:

While I was super pleased to be on the show and enjoyed myself, I was frustrated that I did not get a chance to share a couple of important points, especially when I felt like we were all living in a fun little fantasy.  While Cooper was right on some things, and the conversation was in many ways more substantive than I have come to expect from cable news, he is completely wrong about wider culture.  It is ludicrous to think that emergency situations are some magical prism in which our true character is revealed.  Keeping Your Head is a specific skill that is cultivated through practice.  Most of us have little.

Instead, we do what we are trained to do. The modern human, generally, is good at whipping out phones and taking pictures. We usually have no clue what to do in pressure situations.  A couple reasons might be that our lives include sitting in cubicles and exclude panicked flight from saber-toothed tigers.  But, when the modern human does have a clue (read soldiers, fireman, police officer, etc.), we almost always act bravely.

After I grabbed the guy on the subway and it was caught on film, everyone in my life was calling me a hero, and it was obnoxiously irrefutable that I was one.  I was uncomfortable with it, it made me reflect, and I came to a startlingly life-affirming conclusion that I have blogged about previously.  Here is the elevator speech:

We are a brave and caring species: you, me, pretty much everybody.  I am the same philosophizing-goofball I was when I was waiting anxiously for the train.  My actions says something about all of us, about average people.  We rise to occasions.  It would be absurd to think, for example, that the folks on flight 93, which crashed in PA on 9/11, who acted way braver than me, were by some fluke of travel planning in the top 1% of brave people in the country, or even the top 10% or 30%, and that this flight full of super duper heroes happened to be one that was hijacked. Nah.  The folks who stormed the cockpit on flight 93 were most likely a swath of regular folks.  This tells me that the average Joe can be counted on to be brave and is most likely capable of incredible human kindnesses.”

Famous psychologist and Stanford proffessor Phillip Zimbardo agrees.  He writes in  “The Banality of Heroism”:

The idea of the banality of heroism debunks the myth of the “heroic elect,”…[which ascribes] very rare personal characteristics to people who do something special—to see them as superhuman, practically beyond comparison to the rest of us.

But if incredible bravery is normal, why are we so blind to it?  Why did the country roundly condemn the bystanders who let the man die on the subway tracks?  Good question.  I’ll blog about that next time, but I’ll say this much: What struck me as I listened to Anderson Cooper and Dr. Drew talk before I went on the air is that negative news and looking down on others seems to serve an important social function that I had been reading about in Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis.  Namely, gossiping about what’s wrong with other people helps us bond to the people that we gossip with.

More later…

Oh…and here is a picture of Alicia and I at a little shin-dig that happened 20 blocks away from our house.  Thank you Derek Schwabe for getting us tickets!

Alicia and I at Obama’s 2nd Innagural.

Jer and Alicia Clifton at Obama’s 2nd inaugural, 2013

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A Note to George Zimmerman

Last week’s post sparked great discussion.  It is so gratifying tackling these issues with so many friends.  Throughout those conversations, the following three points emerged:

First, as per usual, I am entirely unimpressed with the issues that the media and public choose to care about.  Obesity, to name just one issue, kills millions and costs the US economy at least $300 billion a year and is treated primarily with those two incredibly cost-prohibitive treatments: diet and exercise.

Horrible and solvable issues abound and the Trayvon shooting is not one of them.  All the ranting about this being part of a larger issue about gun control and “Stand your Ground” laws is silly.  Perhaps we will get more cases like this because of these new laws, but right now each year about 56.5% of gun-related deaths in this country are suicides, a majority of what is left is drug or gang related, only 14% of gun deaths involve strangers, and on the whole violent crime like this has continued to decline across the country since the 1980s.  The rise of homicidal neighborhood watch volunteers is not likely to be an important public health issue in the future.

Second, we must be slow to judge what happened and why it happened (this video was something that made me pause).  This story has inspired racial outrage prematurely.  Of course, it very well might be racism that killed Trayvon Martin.  If so, when that is discovered to be the case, I will agree that it is part of a disturbing, larger trend of racism.  But the trends that I see right now are an America who jumps to conclusions when the victim of a shooting is black and progressives who jump to conclusions about gun owners.  So, my progressive friends, take it from me: I find the second amendment archaic, stand your ground laws unwise, vigilanteism foolish, and the modern Republican Party upsetting.  But nonetheless, Zimmerman deserves to be tried based on the laws of his state and not your sense of what is right and wrong.  He should have his day in court and, if you are truly an open-minded liberal, in the court of your opinion.

Third, I have something to say to Zimmerman himself.  (If he is anything like me, he probably spends too much time looking at his story online, so I hope he finds this.)

Zimmerman, I don’t know you, and I don’t know what happened, but please know that I’m feeling for you man, for the fame that has rushed in on you, and for the tragic circumstances that led to it.  Two years ago, I almost hit a baby in a stroller while pulling out of a gas station.  I cannot imagine what you are going through having actually killed a 17-year-old.  And now it must seem like your whole life is out of your control and you don’t know who your friends are.  I am sorry so much has been taken from you so quickly without a conviction to justify it.

But do me a favor.  I know my little traffic accident made me think about giving up cars entirely–that perhaps it just wasn’t worth speeding around at high velocity in large hulks of metal if I could destroy something so precious with it–but I ultimately didn’t because it was too inconvenient. But you could succeed where I failed.  I am wondering, has this experience caused you to reflect anew on whether owning personal handguns is worth it?  If you came out against gun ownership right now, or even sold your own guns, it would send a strong statement.  If you don’t change your mind on guns, I respect that, but you should still think about it.  Very soon your 15 minutes of fame will be gone, your national audience will dissipate, and you will lose the chance to effect enormous change.  Don’t waste the moment. ; )


Pandas – Epic Fail

I recently read a short story about pandas, watched 2 documentaries on pandas, and enjoyed Kung Fu Panda 1 and 2 .  In my newfound expertise, have come to the conclusion that pandas are entirely pathetic creatures. First off, 99% of their diet is bamboo–delicious and not at all nutritious.  A true bear, they have carnivore specific genes, carnivore teeth, and a carnivore digestive system, so they derive even less energy and protein from their food.  They can’t hibernate for the winter because there is no way for them to store up enough fat.  They don’t like moving around much.  And they avoid mountains because it takes too much energy to climb.  Males weigh up to 350 lbs.  Females up to 280.  They eat 20-30 lbs of bamboo shoots a day and can poop, with all that good roughage, up to 40 times a day.  The rest of the Panda’s diet, the 1%, is other grasses, wild tubers, small birds, rodents, or carrion.

Pandas have very short life spans and sexually productive periods.  They lose interest in mating once captured.  Even in the wild they can’t raise more than one cub at a time–if more than one cub is born one is left to die–because their milk is so low in nutrition.  And the cubs need nutrition.  They start out pink, blind and furless, at a whopping 3.5-4.6 ounces.

In contrast, black bears weigh around 300 lbs and will eat nearly anything.  Polar bears eat almost nothing but meat and weigh up to 1500 lbs.  Grizzly bears also weigh up to 1500 lbs.

 

When my brother was in ninth grade he told me something that has stuck with me.  The best stories are those in which normal everyday people discover something about themselves, something special, some heritage, special skill, or destiny, that launches them into a life of adventure, excellence, and self-fulfillment.

I guess I am waiting for the Giant Panda to remember it’s a kickass bear.


Am I Sexist?

I am not sexist.  Really, I am not.  Also, I have never google-image searched naked pictures of the T-Mobile girl and/or tried to friend her on facebook.  But denials have a curious way of making people wonder why they are necessary.  Indeed, some have expressed concern over my alleged sexism, especially after watching my Fox5 interview.  Towards the end I make this unfortunate statement which, quite understandably, I have been asked to explain: “I also think I’m not special in this [this pulling people off the third rail business].  I think there are tons of men and boys out there that would have done the exact same thing.”

Yup.  Men and boys.  Exactly.  Good thing they did not include the rest of the interview, cause I go on to expound on how all women and girls are worthless cowards.  No.  That is not a true story.  The host, Angelique Proctor, understood what I meant when she said, “Jeremy…believes any of us would have had a similar reaction.”  So why did I say “men and boys”?

Obviously, cause I was a tad stupid.  I cringe when I hear the line.  Alicia cringed too while watching the interview from the other side of our living room.  This was my first interview, and my worst.  I was clueless.  This experience makes me extremely patient with celebrities and politicians who get in trouble because of sound bites.  I have been saying for years that if I was a celebrity I would get caught saying idiotic things all the time.  And, in my fifteen minutes of fame, I proved myself prescient.

Fortunately context saves me.  Often it will not.  I do, in fact, consistently say dumb things.  But this time context saves me.  At the beginning of the interview Angeligue had asked me why I grabbed the guy.  In my answer, I talked, among other things, about how I had been an adventurous, daydreaming boy, who often imagined the day I would rescue damsels in distress on a semi-weekly basis.  As I grew older and started lifting and working out, ostensibly for sports, I knew it was in fact secret superhero training.  Though overstated, I think this rings true for many other boys who, like me, grow up to be men but never quite lost those specific daydreams.  There are lots and lots of us out there.

The “men and boys” comment was meant to bring this context to bear in order to support the broader point that there are many others who would have acted similarly.  Some of these people would be, I think, the people who had developed the silly and noble psychosis that I had.  So I was in fact making fun of men and boys a bit, and my comment was inclusive, not meant to exclude others from being brave, but to note that one of the groups that would be brave in these sorts of situations is a group I have already mentioned.  Of course, none of this was clear from the interview.

There are those who had concerns before the “men and boys” comment.  I certainly hold beliefs and ideas that some find sexist-ish and I espouse them liberally (or conservatively?).  I do not think they are sexist, and Alicia does not think they are sexist either, at least not usually.  I plan on blogging about them and the reader can decide for his or her self.  In the meantime, please accept my apologies if you were offended by my comment on Fox5.  I assure you, in this case at least, I was not sexist, but merely dumb.


Fox&Friends

Seriously, who is making these decisions to allow stutterers on the air? : )


If you had 5 minutes in front of 2 million people, what would you say?

Since Thursday, it looked like life was getting back to normal and things were calming down.  Life lied.  This afternoon I was contacted by a producer at Fox&Friends, and I am scheduled to be on their show Tuesday morning 6:30ish (they should give me details tomorrow).

Fox & Friends is the highest rated morning news show in the nation with almost 2 million viewers a day.  As a firm believer in the transformative power of ideas, this is an incredible opportunity, and it gets me thinking: If you had five minutes in front of 2 million people, what would you say?  Your thoughts and advice is welcome.

Who knows what will happen?  Maybe I’ll stutter on my name the entire time.  But I am leaning away from any personal plugs like finding work, a publisher, etc.  Clearly, I will talk about the event itself, but I hope to get through that fairly quickly.  What I really want to talk about is the broader meaning for this entire category of events–what these sorts of stories say about each other, what they say about our national dialogue, how they point to a common love and compassion which undergirds our society and entreats us to hold each other in high regard, to respect each other, even our enemies.

Ok, maybe I won’t change the world with this interview, but maybe maybe I might help one person esteem their spouse more.  If so, I win.


It’s a Secret

Instead of people simply seeing this story on TV and saying, “Oh it’s nice that someone out there is brave,” I wish they would say, “it’s nice to see a reminder that we are a brave and caring people.”  We are.  You are.  That’s the message that I wish the news coverage would talk about more.  Stories of ordinary people being brave broadcasts that secret.  I am the same philosophizing-goofball I was when I was waiting anxiously for the train.  My ensuing actions say something about all of us, about average people.  We rise to occasions.  It would be absurd to think, for example, that the folks on flight 93, which crashed in PA on 9/11, who acted way braver than me, were by some fluke of travel planning in the top 1% of brave people in the country, or even the top 10% or 30%.  Nah.  They were most likely a swath of regular folks.  This tells me that the average Joe can be counted on to be brave and is most likely capable of incredible human kindnesses.  So what do we do with that?  I think we should treat each other with the respect that brave people deserve and take some comfort from the fundamental decency that pervades our society–though too often in secret.

Some disagree.  They say I have to look no further than the people in the video just standing around and not helping.  There were hundreds of people there just watching, they say.  What about the guy who filmed it?  What decent human being chooses to film instead of help?

But what should they have done?  What is helpful in that situation?  Even in retrospect, in the calm of my living room, I have a hard time thinking up things they should have been doing.  In the chaos of the moment, how can we expect people to have any clue what to do or even to know what is going on.  People are always morally bound to do what they think is right, but if you have no idea what is right, you have no decision to make.  Those of you who have read my manuscript know that if there is no decision to be made, then nothing can be revealed about a person’s character.  If there is nothing you think you should do, it isn’t even possible to reveal how brave or cowardly you might be.

Ok.  So why was I doing something:

1) Most people who watched the event unfold came later.  Right when it happened, there were only a few people near where he fell in.  Of those people, I was the first to react, but there were reasons for that.

2) I am physically fit.  Maybe other people did not think they were capable of pulling someone up.  I certainly wouldn’t want my wife jumping down there.  The risk to herself would not be worth the small amount of help she could offer in grabbing him.  (FYI, my wife laughed at this; she thinks it’s true.)

3) I ran up thinking that all it would take was jumping down and picking him up before the next train came.  So, I became involved in the situation before I understood how dangerous it was.

4) Of the people there when he fell, I was likely one of the most trained people there and possibly the most experienced in life or death situations.  I was a lifeguard in high school.  On separate occasions, two kids who jumped in the pool not knowing how to swim.  On one of my first days as Head Lifeguard, one girl fell off the high dive onto the concrete and was convulsing terribly.  I remember running around like a chicken with my head cut off not really knowing what to do.  I responded in ways I wish I didn’t, but I certainly learned from the situation.  During high school I myself had several concussions.  I also broke my arm in spectacular leaping fashion when I failed to see a big sewer drain opening up before me as I ran through woods at night.  As I was being carried to the ambulance surrounded by friends, somebody on each side offered to hold my hand.  I was so in shock that I apologized several times, saying how sorry I was that I could not hold the one person’s hand because when I did my arm hurt.  Once my buddy stepped on some thick wire that speared his foot, and I had to pull it out for him.  Twice I was attacked by a swarm of bees.  Once my dad, another buddy, and I were almost killed when we were snorkeling and did not see the weather change and a storm pick up.  In college, I was a volunteer firefighter for two years.  I also took a 3 week course and became a Wilderness First Responder, kinda like an EMT for the woods.  We did dozens of practice scenarios when somebody was hurt, and we had to respond appropriately.  During college, I also checked a thief into some arcade machines as he was running away from police.  In Buffalo, I almost drowned in the Niagara River, and I lived in an area where I could occasionally hear gunfire and hooliganism.  In Atlanta, in the process of getting ACE certified, I took CPR training for the 4th time.  And these are just the highlights.  Maybe somebody on the platform from the start had more pressure situation experience and training than me.  Maybe not.  But I know that that background is what allowed me to stay calm and talk the guy through it.  I know it’s what made me realize that he probably did not even know where he was and probably could not deduce it in his present state with the cacophony of noise around him, or at least that had been my experience when I was in shock.  (Still it is entirely possible that what I did was INCREDIBLY stupid.  I think in firefighter training I was told not to grab people who were being shocked.  Oops.)

When somebody freezes in a pressure situation.  It does not mean they are not brave.  It means that they have no idea what to do.  They still really want to help, and they think they should be helping, but they have no idea what to do.  I only knew what to do, or had an opinion about what I should do, because of my experience.

Ultimately, I think it is likely that not a single person at the incident knew exactly what they should do and yet failed to act out of fear and cowardice.  If so, nobody there was cowardly at all, and the man who caught it on video did do some real good: the video-footage is proof for all of us that we are a brave and caring people.

That video now has almost 60,000 views!  Crazy.  And my friend Andie just told me the front page of Yahoo News had it up for a while.  The most accurate coverage though I think was done by CBS.