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Disaster in the ‘burbs

 

Years ago, when I was living in New Hampshire, my father took me camping out in my backyard. I spent the night holed up in an old chicken coop, while my father heated up a pot of soup over an open fire. I remember feeling so free and pioneering, despite being yards away from my house. Just my dad and I,  surviving the elements, living like frontiersmen. Trying to make do on rations of soup, hotdogs and a loaf of Wonder bread. It was exhilarating. Until I realized that I was missing my nightly glass of warm milk before bed, and my mother.  “We’re surviving out here,” my dad told me. “There’s no glass of milk in the wilderness.”

I wasn’t much of a survivalist I guess. And in a deep-rooted, guilt-ridden sense, I am ashamed of myself and  people like me who, sadly, are creatures of comfort. Whose disaster mentality has translated not only into buying up a gazillion water bottles and stock piling food like it was the end of the world, but purchasing rain boots, generators and a month’s supply of romance novels. I am embarrassed that our survivalist instinct has turned into a consumerist instinct, and that we even have all this crap for purchase to begin with. And, I regret to admit that extreme conditions, cautioned about incessantly on every TV channel and every radio station and every online newswire, incite us to run out to Wal-Mart as if our life depended on it.

I’m kind of disappointed too that we desperately fear adversity. Oh sure, we love it in movies. But reality’s another story. What happened to our fore fathers’ pioneering spirit? Has our DNA transmuted so severely that no one wants to be that guy whose power goes out for a week; or whose house blows away; or whose stuff sinks into biblical flash floods and everything he owns is stripped from him in a matter of 24 hours?  The guy who didn’t heed the governor’s warning to “prepare” or “evacuate”? And even though, you know as well as I do, that the power will be back on within 24 hours, it’s a little disheartening  that we’re all purchasing with such fury and devotion because of having fallen off the grid.

I’m not saying that I don’t think storms will do damage. Or even that lives or possessions are at risk. Oh gosh, I’ve been around long enough to know Mother Nature is boss.

What I am saying is that our survivalist instinct has morphed into some weird excuse to shop.

And while  The Dominican Republic, or some of the smaller islands of The Bahamas  watch their lives sink into oblivion, we on the East Coast are buying up two-hundred cans of Chicken Noodle soup for a ten-hour power outage.

Forget about the coastal towns, where homes are truly in the path of the eye of the storm. There are spots from South Carolina to Maine that need to take extreme caution. I’m not talking about those places. I’m talking about right here– 40 miles inland, where my local grocery store’s shelves are bare and where Target has sold out of not only batteries, but rain boots (Rain boots? Really?)

What bothers me is our desperate tenacity to avoid any kind of deprivation. We fear being without. Without electricity. Without power. Without water. Without food. Without peanut M&Ms, a pocket full of cash and about twenty DVDs for weekend movie watching. Being without has become unbearable and unAmerican. “Stuff” and the possessing of it is all this country seems to be focused on when there’s inclement weather. Sure, there are necessities that we should not go without during a hurricane. An emergency preparedness kit is a great idea. But hoarding and stockpiling massive quantities of food and useless commodities like rain boots is, quite frankly, insane. Especially when you consider that PSE&G will have “6000 employees supporting the restoration effort, including 840 linemen and 540 tree contractors available to respond to outages once the hurricane pulls away.”

You know as well as I do that the power will be back on–if your home is still standing– within 24 hours. And if your home isn’t still standing, then a can opener won’t do you much good, will it? Remarkably,  the diner down the road can take care of your needs.

Wawa will re-open. Shop Rite will be restocked. Roads will clear.

This is the suburbs. It’s not Nunivak Island off the Yukon River delta in Alaska. I’m not sure of any disaster scenario in Cherry Hill, NJ which might necessitate a three-day supply of non-perishables when Whole Foods is in walking distance and will reopen for business the day after the storm. No one will starve. No one will go hungry. And no one, technically, will go without.

The Wall Street Journal had an amazing article out a while ago, entitled, The Fantasy of Survivalism, which details our inherent need to experience real disaster. That need showcases itself every where–in apocalyptic movies like 2012, Armageddon and Doomsday; in our media outlets, news channels and social networking sites; and in our own “disaster mentality,” which compels us, as a society, to stockpile, hoard and accumulate goods when rationally, it doesn’t make sense to do so.

Virginia Postrel writes, “…the survivalist instinct mostly plays to a perverse fantasy. It’s both comforting and thrillingly seductive to imagine that you’re completely independent, that you don’t need anyone or anything beyond your home, that you can master any challenge. In the survivalist imagination, a future disaster becomes a high-stakes opportunity to demonstrate competence and superiority.”

But sadly, there’s a rather large disconnect between the fantasy of surviving and the reality of it. For one, we’re not really surviving. We’re weathering a storm. You survive the Isreali-Palestinian border. You survive trekking through Tibet. You do not survive affluent Haddonfield.  Second, we’re failing to make logical, rational judgements in the face of “What if…” The Weather Channel reported that “28 million are under threat of a hurricane watch.” It sounds devastating. It sounds catastrophic. And it sounds like I better get 100 bottles of water instead of ten. In other words, my perspective on where I am located, my socio-economic status, the strength of my home and the resources surrounding  me don’t play into my  judgement about what will probably happen, as opposed to what could happen (side note: at the height of this thing, they’re calling for 40 mph winds for Medford, NJ). Lastly, if you want to know the truth, most of us are ill-prepared for true survival anyway. “Our society is full of ignorant urbanites who don’t know how to make what they use,”  Postrel quotes, “That ignorance makes us vulnerable.” And that ignorance  leads us to believe that  consumption of goods is the next best thing. I, for one, couldn’t tell you how to find edible berries in the woods if my life depended on it.

Which leads me back to my argument about the suburbs. Do we really need to forage for food anyway? Do we really need to prepare for three days of isolation and internment when, within minutes after the storm,  Krispy Kreme will reopen and we can once again pig out on donuts? Has anyone ever eaten cold soup from a can anyway???

Sometimes we are so wrapped up in our  disaster mentality that we “play out the steps taken ‘before, during, and after a natural disaster’. These include ‘predictions of impending doom’, overreactions, the ‘institutionalization of threat’, rumour, false alarms and at times mass delusion” (Cohen 1972: 144-8 in Goode & Ben-Yehuda 1994: 29). And speaking of impending doom, I made sure to shave my legs this morning in the shower, lest I am cut off from a water supply for several days.

All this brings me  to Bangladesh. Every year in Bangladesh monsoons come and wipe out everything along the river. Every year people lose their homes, their possession; some lose their lives. But they’ve become so adapted to this way of life that they can collect all their belongings in one bag and stick it in a boat. They can float down river for days until the floods cease. And then, they rebuild–year after year after year.  Postrel quotes Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institution as saying; “Those who, in extremis, are able to produce their own food and shelter are far more autonomous, and far better able to react to adversity,”

And I agree. We give up something of ourselves and forego our deeper potential to “survive” when we turn our power over to credit cards and to nonsensical stockpiling of things as nutty as “freeze dried delights which can be easily stored for 7-25 years.”(Suburban Survivalists Begin Hoarding Food, Water and Weapons).

Look, who am I kidding. I went out and bought up water bottles and canned goods just like everyone else. I have my fancy little crank radio, candles and matches ready to go. And without anyone knowing, I secretly checked to make sure our sleeping bags were readily accessible. For what, I don’t know. And there is a part of me, deep down inside, that functions, like Postrel suggests, on a “survivalist imagination” and wishes to experience an epic event where I actually get to use all this stuff. But the reality is, I am well taken care of. Trees will blow down around me. Maybe even some power lines will fall. Maybe I’ll lose electricity. If I’m lucky, dinner will be a can of beans that I’ll open with my manual can opener.  I’ll feel like I’m a frontierswoman again. And in the morning, just like everyone else, when the storm’s over,  I’ll go back to the grocery store and restock– or I’ll eat my words. Let’s hope for the former.

The woman who attached herself to food with a string

Part I

It made no sense to spend the night driving from Ouarzazate to Agadir, considering that we would have to go through the Tichka pass with which neither of us were familiar. Besides, Paul wanted to take pictures and I wanted one last glimpse of the desert before reaching the coast. But another night at the Ksar Ighnda was not an option, and so we packed our bags and found an older room at a riad about two miles from the center of town.

We had no set schedule. We were itinerants addicted to the unfamiliar. And as such, we had to impose customs on ourselves within the confines of our peripatetic lifestyle. Where once our children and the daily grind of work and home dictated the entire structure of our New Jersey existence, now we were living gratis. We had returned to innocence, like free-floating kids without a lick of responsibility. On this particular night, like every other, Paul took his thé à la menthe at the café or lobby alone, while I stayed back in the room to read or nap or simply linger on my own mindlessly, doing nothing, save stare at the architecture and decor of the four walls surrounding me. At 10ish, I would join him for dinner at whatever restaurant the hotel offered. But the longer I lingered in our tiny room, the more apparent it became that the Hotel Nord offered little more than a bed, a broken air conditioner, and two open windows that looked out over the N-9 in Tabounte, a noisy suburb. I was restless. And so, despite needing the order of my alone time, I decided to join Paul early.

When I arrived, he was talking with an American, a man about our age, with grayish sandy hair and a peculiar, vapid smile–the kind you might see on a glassy-eyed, cultish Jim Jones, or Claude Vorilhon. He was dressed inappropriately for tea, and too wealthy looking for a budget hotel. He was in the midst of going on and on about the company he owned, Southern Bio Technologies, LLC., which improved bean and other crop production technologies in Central and Southern Africa. I didn’t have the patience to find out what he was doing in Morocco, let alone Tabounte, so I assumed he was here on business and like us, couldn’t find a better hotel on such short notice. I remained on the periphery of the conversation. Paul was such a good listener and so, it wasn’t uncharacteristic of him to get stuck chatting with someone he had literally nothing in common with. He was a small town, county attorney—think Atticus in To Kill A Mockingbird—kindhearted and fair like Atticus too, who despite making a good living for himself and his family, had never voiced an interest in bean farming, that I know of. And yet, to his credit, he genuinely found something interesting in everyone.

But, I was burnt out on listening, or for that matter, talking. It seemed to me that most tourists were not used to the isolation of travel and so when they’d meet up with someone who spoke their language, they would incessantly ramble on about nothing— superficial, braggy stuff—where they’d been, what they owned, how they managed, “knock on wood,” to stay afloat during the economic downturn, how many kids they had in what Universities, where they were going next. If we’d mention our trip to the south of Spain, they too had been there, plus the Canaries, plus Portugal. If we mentioned we had four kids between us, two of whom were at State Universities, they had five: two in Harvard, one in Princeton, another at MIT. It got to the point where I simply didn’t care to meet or talk to anyone anymore as a method of self-preserverance. Where once a stranger was a lifeline, now he was a source of encumbrance.

Instead of socializing, I kept my head buried in a book. While in Morocco I felt as though I had no choice but to read everything by Paul Bowles, and the Spanish author Juan Goytisolo. Presently I was reading Makbara, by the latter. A chapter entitled, The Cemetery—but still catching tidbits of the American’s pontifications.

“SBT disseminates technologies to and educates thousands of bean farmers all across Africa for the purpose of transforming their subsistence farms into local, national and potentially international-selling cash crops…”

I was bored with him, until, “One of my favorite charities that SBT is involved in at the moment is assisting the little guy in his endeavor to forge a relationship with the big guy.”

“For what purpose?” I asked, placing my book on the bar. “What would the little guy want or even need from the big guy?” I already didn’t like his arrogant tone.

“So that they can buy more seeds, more readily, so as to handle the increasing demands of their crop.” He smiled.

“So basically you help make it impossible for local farmers to feed their families because suddenly they can’t afford the cost of their own crop?”

“No, my dear,” his odd smile remaining, “We are improving lives.”

Paul interjected, “my wife loves a good conspiracy.” The American laughed and invited us to his place for drinks, just across the N-9,

“I’d like you to meet my wife,” he said, looking at me in particular. “I think you’d both get along quite well.”

I assumed he meant he had a house. It’d been a while since I’d been in one and so I looked at Paul, he looked at me, and we agreed. I grabbed my book and a sweater and the three of us  headed away from the safety of hotel life into the dark, unfamiliar street.


The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree

I’m hiding out in my bedroom with the door locked, pretending I don’t know anyone’s home. I don’t want anyone to bother me or tell me what to do. I just want to play my records and write in my journal. More than anything, I don’t want anyone to make me study for that test on Friday. Oh, but wait. That’s not me. That’s my son. I’m not the one in 7th grade. I’m not the one getting D’s in Math and Science, or having grumpy teachers send notes home telling me I better get my act together. I’m a grown woman. I’m the mother of two. Or am I? I’m starting to have doubts.

I remember well. I graduated high school back in the 80’s and when I did, I threw off my cap and gown and said, screw this shit. Thank God I never have to go back. I went on to college, then grad school, met someone, got married and had kids. I struggled and I overcame adversity. And when I had my very first, tiny little bundle of joy, I promised that things would be different. That he would not have to suffer through what I did when I was a kid. That he would never know the horrors of looking down the gaping mouth of a screaming teacher, telling him to “wise up.”

But sadly, that was a crackpot notion. I was promising to stop a runaway train with my bare hands. A feat that simply cannot be done.  Kids have to go through their own personal struggles and no one can protect them after a certain age. Lesson learned.

Or not.

My sixth grader brought home a D. So, I sit with him night after night after night trying to get him to understand how to multiply and divide fractions. But I’ve forgotten myself. How do I multiply fractions? I haven’t done it in years. The frustration of not getting it returns.

  1. Simplify the fractions if not in lowest terms.
  2. Multiply the numerators of the fractions to get the new numerator.
  3. Multiply the denominators of the fractions to get the new denominator.

I send him back to school on test day, sure that he will get an A. I wait. I wonder. I pace the halls. I Freudian slip and say, “I wonder what I got?”  But he returns with another D, and I’m crushed. How was that possible? The both of us went over this a million times. So, I do what any desperate parent does who lives vicariously through her kids: I yell at him and take away his video games. Maybe, by accident, it just slips out, I even berate him for not being able to understand the material. The guilt-laden words, “C’mon, what were you thinking?” make their way from deep inside my stomach, up my throat and out my mouth.

To top it off, I get the dreaded letter sent home about his performance. He’s not paying attention in class; he’s fooling around with his friends; he needs to be more respectful to his teachers; he needs to stop drawing cartoons in his notebook; this is his third detention in six months; if his behavior and his grades don’t improve he will likely be kept back.

Sure, it’s his behavior under scrutiny and they’re his grades. But really, they’re mine. It’s me back in middle school, floundering around, doggy-paddling to stay afloat. I was a rotten student. And every bad grade he comes home with is a blazing reminder of my own poor performance back in the day. Every detention he gets, it’s me who sits with the shame. And every parent-teacher conference or note sent home is not about his behavior, but mine. Of course, you could say this is narcissism at its finest. Whatever happens to others becomes internalized and thus, happens to me. The apple is the tree. It’s all about me, me, me. Yet, my children are an extension of me. There’s an interconnectedness there that cannot easily be disconnected.  And so, I empathize with their plight, particularly when I too have lived through the same. Isn’t it called compassion? At least that’s what I tell myself it’s called.

In fact, I sat through one of his conferences just recently and listened to all of teachers say the same thing. And I’m sure I heard it this way: you need to stop fooling around, Tracy. School is no joke. It’s time to get serious. And as I sat in my little 7th grade chair, so low to the ground, like a shrinking violet, with my knees knocking under the desk, I could feel my heart pound and my face get hot with humiliation for not being a better student.

It’s not just me. My sister-in-law is about to register her son for Kindergarten, but she’s in a panic. Once he gets on that bus, all by himself, she said, she can’t protect him. She was a shy kid too. She knows how rough it will be to take that twenty-minute ride to school, knowing no one, and having no one to hide behind or talk to.

Another friend of mine watches in horror as her teenage kids get into trouble, oftentimes with the law. “I was so bad when I was a kid,” she told me. “And now I’m watching my sons get into the same kind of mess.”

The wheel goes around for everyone. And yet, there’s a reason we as parents must shoulder our kids’ burdens. Isn’t it too much to ask a shy five-year-old to handle a bus ride by himself? Isn’t it too much to expect a seventh grader to perform flawlessly in every subject when, like his mother, he is a dreamer too?

I so often believe it is.

And so, is the lesson learned here to hold on for dear life? To live through things again and again until you get it right? Even at the expense of others? Or does the girl with zero confidence who is still holding on for dear life, need to let go of the death grip she has on her son who, by no conscious choice of his own,  reminds her everday of her own past failures? Perhaps the lesson is to remember  how rotten it felt to not be believed in or, to not be loved above all else, despite your limitations. Lessons, lessons, lessons. They are learned at all ages, And perhaps I need to let go. Not of my son, but me. I need to forgive the girl who made so many mistakes and lazed around the house without an ambitious bone in her body or a shred of self-motivation. I need to let go of that wasted time that I often foolishly think I’ll ever get back. Humans! The only animal on the planet capable of so many deep-rooted pschyological weirdness. Alas,  I did bloom. I was a late bloomer. And as Sharon Olds says, “anyone who blooms at all, ever, is very lucky.” But, in the end, it’s not about me. It’s about him. It’s about the tree shaking the apple off its limb and letting it roll where it chooses. It’s about saying: I may be suffering right along with you. You’re not alone. But you’re free. You are your own person. And I love you unconditionally. 

Clair de Lune

I have been listening to Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune for three days straight. Over and over and over and over. There’s something about this song that brings me to a very sacred, dreamy place inside me. Back to Paris. To Karen. To Rue Rimbuteau. To the ghosts in my head that are still strolling up and down the rue Saint-Jacques on the way to the Violon Dingue.  To sitting in my tiny apartment in Les Halles, during the summer of ’89 dreaming up dreams of Africa and Les Sables-d’Olonne.

I am now certain that I will return to Paris this coming Spring or summer- an old lady. It will have been 20 years since I’ve been back. That’s a lifetime. I know it won’t be the same and that is what I dread. I dread going and erasing everything and everyone I’ve carried with me for all those years and turning them all into something dirty and profane.

Dirty and profane.

It’s like the memory of S. All those years you carry with you this wonderful, sacred feeling for someone and then one day, in a blink, it’s undone, and something else takes its place. And no matter how hard you to try to get it back, you realize that it’s lost forever…