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Escaping in the new year 

Survivor's instinct requires a back-up plan

This new year, I resolve to be more picky about where I put my tongue. It's the same resolution I make every year in memory of an oceanography professor I heard about in junior college, who licked a sea anemone (or maybe it was a sea urchin) during a field trip at the beach to show his students how harmless they are. He was wrong. He'd momentarily confused an anemone with an urchin and forgot which was poisonous and which needed a good licking. His tongue swelled to the size of a kielbasa sausage, blocked his airway and he died writhing with his fingers clutching his throat while his students laughed at him hysterically, unaware until too late that he wasn't just putting on a really good act.

I think about that at the start of each new year because -- what with serial killers, plane crashes, weapons, disease, "acts of God," acts of those who claim to be acting in the name of God, gangs, killer sea creatures, plain stupidity, cholesterol and those tiny fish bones that can get caught in your colon -- I'm just amazed I survived.

I'm always amazed by that, and I always prepare for escape in case the above said survival is ever threatened. For example, I used to keep an army knife in my pocket because I have a fear of being locked in a trunk. My friend told me about a woman who, after her abductors locked her in their trunk, saved herself by ripping out the wires that led to the taillights. The car was pulled over by an alert policeman and the killers were foiled. "Can you believe she thought of that?" my friend asked.

Hell, yes, I can. I think of stuff like that all the time. That's where the pocket knife came in. I figured I could chisel my way out of the trunk at an intersection or something, or at least spring up after the killer-rapists open the trunk and use the knife's menacing can-opener tool to peck at their eyes. I'd lead the police back to the crime scene hours later, where the killer-rapists would still be crawling around clutching at their empty sockets. Am I the only one who thinks of these things?

My pocketknife, though, was confiscated two months ago by Albuquerque airport security. "I was gonna use that to cut myself free from a malfunctioning seatbelt in the event of a crash," I whimpered to myself as I saw the guard toss it into a box that contained a massive assortment of clippers, files, tweezers and, oddly, a curling iron. With the pocketknife gone, now I'll just have to think of a different way to escape in order to run away from danger.

Running away. This brings to mind one day back in high school, which I spent ignoring class and driving down the coast of San Diego. I came to a stoplight and suddenly saw all these people running. What are they running from? I panicked. Should I be running, too? Turns out they were just jogging, but this was the year after the PSA crash of 1978, in which a 727 jet collided with an out-of-control Cessna, sending them both nose first into the ground and turning a suburban San Diego cul-de-sac into a charred pit of destroyed homes and lives. The wreck happened about a mile from where we had just moved, and I remember hearing about a man who reached for his wife in bed that morning only to notice that her breasts were much bigger than they should have been. Of course it wasn't his wife he was embracing after all, but an unlucky dead woman who had fallen through the roof of his house because the plane she was in had disintegrated in the air over his home.

If you go to that section of San Diego today, there is no trace of the crash other than a marked newness to the homes that had to be rebuilt in comparison to the ones that didn't. There is no sign, no ceremonial marker that I know of, that distinguishes this neighborhood as a place of painful history -- a place where, among other things, a man dozed with his wife one minute and awoke clutching the corpse of another woman the next. It is over. It is smooth. It is smoothed over.

But still sometimes I panic when I see people running. To my eyes, for a second, they are not just running, they are running away, and I don't want to be left behind to face the threat they are fleeing. After that initial second passes, though, I realize there is no threat. None you can see coming, anyway. None you can point to while warning others. None you can't avoid by staying focused, by not confusing a sea anemone with a sea urchin and such. To this day, though, I still think about that poor man's flat-chested wife. Until recently I always figured she got crushed by a beverage cart or something, and that's why she was gone when he reached for her. But these days I look at it differently. She was gone, I like to think, because she escaped.

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