Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Living Backward

"Getting and spending we lay waste our powers"--William Wordsworth

Funny how a minor catastrophe can turn over the rock of your daily existence. Funny how quickly we all look away, too.

The "minor catastrophe" was the evacuation of Houston and much of the Texas Gulf Coast north of Corpus Christi over to the Louisiana coast west of Lake Charles. All the evacuation routes flowed through Houston, and apparently when that was planned, nobody thought there would be local traffic on those routes, much less Houstonians "not in danger" (the preferred phrase of government leaders, now that the danger has passed) trying to evacuate, as well. The current explanations/excuses for the evacuation debacle seem to be, in descending order:

1) the Mayor and the County Judge (Houston is, for all intents and purposes, Harris County, but we maintain two seperate government entities here nonetheless) called for lane reversal on Wednesday morning. The Governor gave the order on Thursday morning. Most of the lane reversals were effected by sometime Thursday night.

By that time, the roads had been at a standstill since Wednesday afternoon. Had Rita sped up, not weakened, and stayed on course for Galveston, it would have been a disaster of Irwin Allen proportions. As it was, more people died fleeing the hurricane, than in the hurricane; and those people didn't need to flee, after all. Which brings us to excuse No.:

2) people in Houston fled who didn't really need to flee. Despite news reports that the Mayor called for a "voluntary evacuation" of Houston, the real call appears to have been limited to the evacuation zones near the coast and ship channel. However, with pictures of Katrina and New Orleans and Mississippi filling TV screens for three weeks, panic set in.

3) Evacuation is an "individual decision," so the people have only themselves to blame for the fact that it wasn't orderly. This was the reasoning used by a FEMA spokesman on NPR this morning, and of the three, it is the purest balderdash. Complying with laws and government edicts is always an "individual decision." It's on the order of the old Dirty Harry line: "Do ya feel lucky, punk?", but it's always a choice by the person.

But all of this led to the "minor catastrophe" of the evacuation itself; abandoned cars on roadways, death in a fiery bus explosion outside of Dallas, 6 hour trips that took 22; nerves rattled, people shaken, an entire city disrupted.

On Sunday, police in Houston had to stand guard over gas stations that were open, because violence threatened to break out in the long lines of people waiting to get gas, and as the officers said "If we leave, we'll just be back here in 5 minutes." Grocery stores shut down, and many are reportedly out of perishables like milk and fresh vegetables and greens. Banks were still closed on Monday, because the staff had fled and were slowly coming back. Schools, closed since Thursday, won't reopen until tomorrow (Wednesday), to prevent a rush of people back to Houston to rival the rush that left, or tried to leave.

And it's got us all feeling a bit sheepish.

But the most interesting effect, is in trying to return to "normal." "Normal" in New Orleans, or southern Louisiana or Mississippi, was shattered and washed out and blown away. We can understand that, can almost grasp, perhaps, standing in the debris of our homes and wondering what to do next. But "normal" here was ruffled entirely by human action: nature did nothing to us, we did it all to ourselves. We disrupted the 4th largest city in the country, and while we're glad no lives were lost and no serious damage was done, and sure lives would have been lost had the storm come to us, and many in its path stayed put, still, we have to put "normal" back together, and we have to do it by acting like nothing happened, and we weren't really scared.

But the question is: what is "normal"? Or rather, why is it normal?

One realizes quickly, in a metropolitan area, that no one is independent at all; that we all depend on one another. If the trucks don't bring the food, we can't buy it in the store. If the tankers don't deliver the gasoline, we can't run our cars at will and go where we want. If the restaurants don't have the staff, we can't eat at our convenience and ability to pay the bill or offer the credit card. If the people aren't there, we can't do what we normally do: which is to purchase.

One realizes, too quickly, that daily life in the metropolis is based on purchase. Food, clothing, books, records, coffee, meals, gasoline, supplies: what have you. The day is spent in exchange: labor for money, money for goods, time for entertainment. The power goes out, we wait patiently for it to return, aware suddenly how much we depend on it. The cable goes out, again we wait, suddenly aware perhaps that we spend too much time with the television. But when the city goes out....?

Two days off, and you decide to catch up on your errands, but...no one is working in the store, and for you that's inconvenient. Two days off and no obstacles to travel, but it's no time for a vacation, a picnic, a trip out of town, so you want to go shopping, and realize...why shopping? Two days off and you want to restock the refrigerator "just in case," but the items you need most simply aren't there, and the lines are long and everything is slow because all the people....

The people are not people, of course. They are means to delivering services you want, goods you desire; or they are obstacles impeding your flow through the city. And you realize, suddenly, when they aren't there, and it isn't a holiday, and you haven't prepared to be inconvenienced like this because you were expecting disaster and it never came, and now what do you do; you realize you suddenly aren't sure what the city is for, except to provide you with diversions and entertainments and...why else live among all these crowds in such an unpleasant environment?

And you realize the world is too much with us, late and soon; or maybe not enough with us, because we are too busy trying to manufacture our own world.

And maybe that's the original human sin: to think that we are the Creator. And so long as we think that, we can never take pleasure in the Creation. And how would we do that, if we wanted our pleasure in the world to be "normal"?

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