Monday, October 29, 2012

Day 858: Disaster Drills

I haven't had anything to post about in a while, and then I started thinking about something small, and I figured I could write about that, but then I wondered why anyone would be interested in reading about my small stuff. I mean, right now, there is this massively disastrous storm literally brewing over the eastern half of the country. Everything seems to be at a standstill: the election, the financial markets, travel, communication. It brings me back to that surreal day in 2000 when the power went out in the Loop. Obviously that wasn't a disaster and wasn't on a scale that even approaches this, but I remember so vividly how everyone walked around in a daze, wondering at the big city with no lights. I remember Mayor Daley's purple face on the news the next day, his rage so unfettered and real. I remember being one of the only people riding the El home, because I knew that the CTA had its own power supply and that I wouldn't be stranded on the train. I knew the buses would take forever with no streetlights. It is, oddly, one of my favorite memories of Chicago.

This storm, this Sandy, is obviously something else entirely. It is the thing everyone is talking about, the thing that matters for us right now. These are the types of disasters that keep everyone in rapt attention, including me. But there's something else I feel about them as well: fascination.

No, I'm not a weather geek. That's my daughter. She tells me every morning, after reading the weather page in the newspaper, about various random weather facts: what time the sun will rise (mom! it's going to rise at the exact same time that the bus leaves for school! isn't that cool? Um, sure, honey...), what the weather is like where various relatives and friends live, the records that have been set, the types of clouds.

It's hilarious to have a little meteorologist in the house, but that's not what gets me about these things.

I am completely fascinated by the human element; not just the suffering that I hope people don't have to endure in too great a measure, but the social aspect.

What does that mean? Well, some of you know that I have a masters degree in urban planning and policy. I've never actually planned urbans; my career has rather been very policy-based, but the whole notion of what happens with social norms in an extreme event, and how human beings manage large institutions, is fascinating to me. So they are evacuating large parts of Manhattan and other big cities on the east the same time that they are closing roads and shutting down all forms of transportation. Now I am not saying that those are bad decisions. I'm just SO CURIOUS about how everything will turn out, how folks will try to make order out of chaos if it comes down to that. Because usually, that is exactly what most people do. People WANT order. A few of the proverbial bad apples might loot, or cause mayhem, but for the most part people do band together and try to find their way out of the mess. And I sit there and wonder...why? And how?

I read all the books about major disasters--shipwrecks, factory fires, floods, you name it. The parts I find most interesting have to do with arcane things like codes, or the lack thereof, or how such events led to stronger labor laws, or tidbits about why Chicago is one of the only places in the world to have so many buildings made of blonde brick. Of course the human interest aspects touch me, and who could not feel pain in the face of such tragedy?

But something about what comes out of it is just almost thrilling to me, no matter how strange that sounds. I guess everyone reading this knows that I'm not a normal person by now anyway. I'm that girl who knows all about how payment systems failed following Hurricane Katrina, the one who went by herself, while pregnant, to see a movie about how black communities were decimated from a cultural standpoint (huge amounts of lost jazz photos, public squares that served as community centers and were never re-opened, musical communities that were lost forever) from the same event. I'm the one who chooses books about genocide for book club. There are reasons for this that come out of some very strange and specific aspects of my upbringing; the details are related to a rather involved family history as well, and it is too complicated to get into here. The point is that I seek out information about these kinds of hells on earth.

Hell, I do this even when it doesn't make sense for me to focus on the macabre. When I was in the hospital suffering from that damn chemo-related temporary heart condition, I got a phone call from a friend in Seattle. She might have been the only person who wasn't related to me who called me. And she wanted to let me know that she had seen a book in the store that made her think of me, and she was going to send it to me, because she thought it would make me feel better.

It was about reconciliation policies in Rwanda.

I shouldn't have been surprised. We used to go to the beach together and lay there sunbathing while reading books like that. And of course she was right--that was just what I needed. I feel a very strong desire to find out about things that are very disturbing, because I feel that we fail each other if we do not bring them to light.

I have not been shy about admitting to my social justice-orientation to the world. What's strange is how I think about it all the time--justice with a big J. Justice from a human rights perspective--that's really what I should have focused on in my career. In a way, I did, as financial justice is one part of the whole. But sometimes I look at the state of women in the world, or just in my own backyard, and I can't believe that I don't do something related to that for a living. I think about slavery--current-day slavery in addition to all the different past iterations of the same. I know more about every genocide that has ever happened than most sane people would care to even contemplate, and then I sit there at night and am haunted by thoughts like this:

What about all the genocides from throughout history that were truly successful? The ones that wiped populations out so completely that we don't even know that they ever existed?

And then I think, now, why would anyone want to read what I have to say about my life, which is so small? On the one hand, I write about the disturbing things that many people don't like to give voice to in relation to cancer, disability, sexuality, and even death. On the other, well, my life is pretty damn good. And even when it's hard, or has been hard, in some ways, I've been prepared for it. I've been giving myself disaster drills my whole life, wondering when the other shoe was going to drop and what I would replace it with, looking over my shoulder and wondering where the getaway car was, modifying things, cheating death.

And yet I have never been very serious, except maybe here. I'm just too inherently content, albeit pissed off, most of the time. So my mind is filled with this big stuff, and sometimes my life is filled with this small stuff.

What I was going to write about was this: This weekend, Gabe and I went to the wedding of his oldest friend. We went to lots of weddings about 7 years or so ago; we got married 8 years ago and were one of the first among our group of friends to do so. But now we're at the point where people are getting divorced, not married. So I don't often have an occasion to dress up too much. It took me a while to pick out a dress, even though I have a lot of cute ones.

Gabe helped me decide on a fairly slinky black number. I remember very well the last time I wore that dress. It was actually for the last wedding we attended--about two and a half years ago, exactly four days after my cancer diagnosis. Before the wedding, we took this picture that turned into one of Gabe's all-time favorite pictures of me. Later, we did a split-screen shot of that picture with one he took of me right after he bic'd my head, so that he could show me that I looked the same (I didn't see it then--though I do see it now). And I was just so lost, so grieved, so unsure of what my future would hold or if I would even have much of a future. I cried at the wedding, I cried after the wedding, I was sad about everything. I could hardly eat my chicken shwarma after we left the reception because I just couldn't talk to people. My husband held me while I cried in the restaurant, and the woman behind the counter pretended not to notice. The next day, I wrote what turned into what I still consider to be one of the saddest, most difficult-to-read blogs in the two and a half year history of this thing. It was my first Mother's Day post.

And then...this year, I put the dress on, didn't bother putting on a bra, planned to wear bare legs with my heels until one and a half of my toenails decided to finally fall off (two years post chemo! the gift that keeps on giving!), decided to put on fishnets instead, slicked back my hair, put long dangly earrings in my newly-pierced ears that haven't healed correctly, and let Gabe take the wheel for the long drive.

The ceremony was very simple and touching. I teared up a bit, thought about beginnings rather than endings, and smiled. We had time to kill before the reception. We went to a few shops in the suburban downtown, then went to the bookstore. We could have gone to a bar, I suppose, but I guess we're nerds. Then we headed over to the reception; Gabe knew some people, though I really didn't know anyone else.

And I didn't care.

Damn did we have a good time! So much food and drink, and new people to meet. And then...the dancing. Now. Gabe is one of those people who claps on one and three. He has NO rhythm. And while I DO have rhythm, I haven't been much of a dancer for years, for some reason I don't really understand myself. I used to go clubbing in high school (all ages night--a euphemism for underage girls welcome so grown men can try to get with them!) and in college, at least for my first year or so. At some point I became more self conscious; I didn't like getting any attention at clubs, and I didn't dance as much. For years I dated a man who danced with me in the kitchen of my apartment. We were too broke to go to the club, and that was more fun anyway. Gabe and I took some ballroom dance lessons when we first got married, and mostly it just made us frustrated.

So no one was as surprised as I was when we spent hours on the dance floor together, Gabe enthusiastically showing the world about his lack of rhythm and his love for me, and me dancing for real for a change. I laughed at him, he laughed at himself. He bumped into people and sometimes turned me the wrong way. We were one of those cheesy lovey dovey couples that annoys people most of the time, except at weddings, where it's ok.

That was it--I was going to write about that. About that moment I couldn't see two and a half years ago when I went to a wedding wearing a tight black dress, when I would be happy, when I would weigh a few pounds more because I wasn't too anxious and terrified to eat, when my hair was pointless, and I wasn't thinking about the death part of till death do us part and I could look back and know that when illness and suffering happened, we would make it through.

It just doesn't seem that important, though. Life is both a tragedy and a comedy. It is big and small. There is always something more joyous happening somewhere else, and something more horrifying. The horrifying is the only one worth worrying about, because it can provide some perspective and help us to help others through the world. And life is also, for me, a story.

Some wonderful stories are born of real tragedy. And you all know that I read the last line first, lest I don't make it to the end. This is why I sometimes don't know why I say things, because what I wanted to say has already been said, often so well that it isn't worth trying to beat:

the last lines of The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder:

But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.

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