RUNNING HEAD: ANTICIPATION: A LIFE SPENT IN WAITING

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anticipation: A Life Spent in Waiting

Timothy J. Burke

University of South Florida

December 3, 2004

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She likes the weather today- says she wanna shake shake shake shake shake

-Adam Duritz, “She Likes the Weather”

A lot of people are in harm’s way. Some are making better choices than others.

-Steve Jerve, WFLA-TV meteorologist, August 13 2004

Ja, Das Scorpions

Gestört mir wie Hurrikan

Charley tötet mich.

 

-Tim Burke, grammatically poor German haiku, August 13 2004

 

            My hips shifted awkwardly in the tan porch chair. Waiting. Right hand curled around a glass of Shiraz, left uncomfortably clutching an unlit Parliament in the skewed manner of a nonsmoker, I stared out into the calm trees that populate my backyard and watched.

            Having arrived in Florida a scant eight days prior, I approached the subject of Hurricane Charley with curiosity. My roommates and I prepared the only way three Yanks from up north knew how in the face of our first hurricane: booze and cigarettes. Jenn cracked the first bottle of wine at eight o’clock in the morning and announced, “Game on!”

            Yet there was an air of discomfort in her tone. It rang true with sensations that had coursed my veins since passing Sand Pine Elementary School the day before and viewing the marquee:

NO SCHOOL TOMORROW

GO AWAY CHARLIE (sic)

            My disquiet had built since passing the sign. Frankly, I didn’t know if I agreed with it. I continued down the road, thinking, “I’m kind of excited for Charley to come here.”

            Sickening. I knew it at the time, and I know it now. But what I came to realize from that anticipation, and the later disappointment, at Charley’s having passed me by is that this wasn’t an isolated incident. I had grown into a person for whom watching chaos, danger, and disaster on television wasn’t enough.

            I wanted to be there. And while I knew that the giant red cyclone that hovered over Port Charlotte on my television was, at that moment, killing human beings, a sick, subtle envy crept into my consciousness. The corners of my eyes fell, my lips shifted, and my cheekbones drooped with the realization that everyone’s worst nightmare was my secret desire.

            This is a memoir of my relationship with chaos, danger, and disaster.

 

January 28, 1986 – 11:30 a.m.

            In a green and black striped polo shirt he sits attentively in the second row of Ms. Wanamacher’s second grade classroom, along the windows. It was a dangerous place to put a seven-year-old with attention problems, but the diagnosing of ADD and ADHD to grade school students would take a few more years to reach Napoleon, Ohio.

            Three hours pass by during which the student pays little heed to his shockingly blonde and equally overbearing teacher. He knows any minute now Principal Yarnell will come on the PA and announce that it was time for teachers to turn on their televisions.

            He also knows that there were delays. The moment he’d been waiting for had been scheduled for earlier in the morning – his father’s USA Today’d had a colorful timeline on the front page. But there were always delays.

            Finally, the crackle and pop comes from the black speaker mounted above the crucifix that adorned the doorway to the room.

            “Teachers, please turn on your televisions for this historic event.”

            The student’s muscles tighten and he shifts nervously in his seat. This was gonna be so cool. As the ancient television warms up he sees the gleaming whiteness of the spacecraft point toward the heavens. He opens the lid of his desk, pulling out the children’s science magazines he’d read compulsively and repetitiously in the previous weeks, outlining every step of the launch process.

            T-minus ten seconds. GLS go for main engine start.

            He sees the fires ignite, burning away the excess hydrogen to ensure a clean launch. He would have turned to Christy, the cute blonde sitting next to him, to explain this, but his eyes were locked on the television.

            T-minus six seconds.

            The main engines fire in an orange burst of color. They reflect in the student’s blue eyes, squinting in the manner they often did before teachers ordered the eye exam that would soon burden him with the thick glasses, his junior-high trademark.

            Aaaalll riiiight.

            The boy grips the corners of his desk as the craft launches, clearing the tower in – counting – seven seconds. It turns, exposing its black insulation that would later protect its reentry to Earth’s atmosphere. The insulation, the boy knows, was manufactured in a plant not far from his grandmother’s house in Toledo. He nagged his parents on every trip to stop and let him see the plant. They never complied, no matter how much he cried.

            Unblinking, his eyes never stray from the glowing image as, 73 seconds later, the whit e and black became an orange fireball. They don’t stray until his teacher quickly moves from her desk to the television, with a quickness worthy of comparison to Earl Campbell, and turns it off.

            She stands next to it, her sizable body commanding the attention of all but one of the 15 students.

            “Please open your spelling books.”

            The boy’s eyes focus with their best ability on the fading spot of the picture tube.

           

            He hated spelling.

           

            The rest of the school day is a blur, in confusion over the reality of what everyone else had just witnessed. The student feels unfulfilled, and, during recess, sits alone on the wooden bench near the swingset. Once back in the classroom, he gathers his belongings in anticipation for the 3:00 bell, and quickly runs home to turn on the television. He needs to know more. Entering his house, he rushes to the basement, tosses his books on the sofa, and selects ABC, his news network of choice.

            Sam Donaldson was standing in front of the White House.

            This was to have been another night of triumph for the President, who had planned to tell the Congress and the nation how good things are in the country. But the shuttle disaster has changed all that. Officials here are shaken by the loss and by the fact that this happened on Mr. Reagan's watch. Sam Donaldson, ABC News, the White House.

            The boy chuckles. Donaldson’s absurd haircut always made him laugh.

 

            I was upset. The other students in school were upset, too. But I was upset for a different reason. I was angry at my teacher for depriving me of observing the aftermath. For depriving me the knowledge of what happened. How it happened. For the experience of being there. My weeks of preparation had been reduced to an inadequate few minutes of coverage. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it wouldn’t be long before my access to another nationally-televised disaster would again be cut short.

 

 October 12, 1991 – 11:30 a.m.

            In his baggy khaki pants with the elastic waistband, he rises from his seat in the eighth-grade classroom and crosses to the television. The teacher, whom, incidentally, was also his mother, had given him permission to turn on the hearings taking place on Capitol Hill in the few minutes before lunch. It’s Friday, and the pungent smell of the weekly fish fry is permeating the building.

            The other students watch with mock enthusiasm, not entirely sure of the political process they’re about to witness. Mainly, their curiosity lies with the boy. Why is he so interested in some Supreme Court nominee? Tim’s always weird like that.

            He flips the channel to NBC, his new favorite station. He sees the professional-looking woman sit behind the microphone, speaking silently. The boy turns up the volume, unmuting the television. He doesn’t realize the volume had already been cranked up to an ear-splitting level.

            …men with large penises and women with large breasts…

            The comment blasts through the room, turning heads with whiplash-like speed. The student’s mother/teacher rushes to the television and quickly silences it.

            “I don’t think this is appropriate for you to be watching,” she voices with as much stoicism as is capable from her diminutive body. She orders the students downstairs to take lunch.

 

 

            While the rest of the students laughed in adolescent maturity at hearing the words so grossly decontextualized, I was quietly calculating how such an event could be taking place in my country. The previous year had found a swelling of patriotism and civic pride in my personality: I’d decorated my room with American flags and anti-Saddam Hussein propaganda, even collecting the tacky Topps Desert Storm trading cards. (Colin Powell was my favorite.) Again, I felt deprived. I wanted to experience the debate, the adversarial discourse that was, in a way, representative of the nation I was slowly coming to know. Certainly, the hearings were divisive, and creating damage not just to political and racial  relations but to women’s rights. I was hardly a feminist at the time, but my mother had raised me well in her adoration of fellow Toledoan Gloria Steinem, and I knew what I was missing was important. I wanted to see Senator Arlen Specter’s questions, see his condescending tone, and stare at his furrowed brow. I wanted that chaos of confusion over the validity of Hill’s claims. I wouldn’t get that opportunity, at least not to witness it live.

 

December, 1993

            He’s hiding under a desk, avoiding Spanish class. A few other students lie with him in the dark, giggling over the havoc they’re causing in the school that day. It was eighth period, the last one of the day, and they were excited to go home. The past two months had been more fun than they’d ever imagined school could be. The teacher’s strike had left a collection of unqualified, unprepared teachers (his band of cohorts knew to refer to them by their proper term, ‘scabs’) in classrooms, and a dearth of discipline in the hallways.

            It’s almost Christmas break, and the students quietly lament the two weeks of separation. Their subversive tactics weren’t sanctioned by their parents, but they weren’t discouraged either. In their minds, everything they did to make sure education didn’t happen was a step toward success.

            Their heavy breathing fills the small room. With watches synchronized, the eight students rush out of the abandoned room with one minute left before the school day’s end. They move with well-planned fluidity, scattering across the school, ensuring every teacher hears their battle cry.

            DOWN WITH SCABS! DOWN WITH SCABS!

            They call themselves the Teekays. Teacher’s Kids. And while they know that adolescence is the time to hate your parents, their labor is one of love.

 

 

            I can’t think of a more exciting moment in my high school career as the five-month teacher’s strike that erupted in the first month of my sophomore year. I had just been elected by my fellow students to lead them as their class president, and a week later, the unexpected strike ensued. National media followed us to school, taking photos and conducting interviews. The teachers we loved stood on street corners, screaming invectives and cursing their replacements who drove by under police cover. Strange people took over teaching our classes, and my father, one of the school’s most senior teachers and the head coach of the football team, began growing a beard, vowing not to shave until a settlement. The air was electric.

            A variety of different methods were devised to deal with the situation, including canceling school several days a week, hiring full-time substitutes, or holding only half-days of class. Our new principal, Mr. Long, was a good man, and as someone on the committee who helped select him, I felt sorry that he was in this situation. Yet even at age 15, I knew about the thickness of blood.

            My enthusiasm for the situation, however, wasn’t shared by my family – or the community. My town swelled with dread and wondered when the crisis would come to an end and “life would go back to normal.”

            I’ve never been fond of normal.

            The economic impact, was, of course, far from my mind. Even when I came home the day before Thanksgiving and found a large turkey in our refrigerator, “Courtesy of the teachers of the Toledo School District,” it never occurred to me that my father, our family’s main source of income, wasn’t earning any paychecks. That is, of course, the consequence of being on strike.

            I enjoyed a time that seemed to be everyone else’s misery. Their financial shortcomings, as well as my own family’s, were irrelevant. The calculated horseplay and devious activities my friends and I were able to accomplish without risk of discipline were a thrill.

            The fun came to an end when I arrived home to find a headline in the paper that would bring reality to my literal doorstep.

            Teachers, school board agree to binding arbitration to settle dispute

            When the union finally signed a contract in March, I was disappointed while my household celebrated. My father would eventually lose his coaching job on account of the strike, but I knew he never really enjoyed it anyway.

            The strike would leave scars in my community that have yet to heal. Its fiercely conservative voters have roundly rejected subsequent levy issues to purchase new books, repair the hundred-year-old middle school, or fund athletics. Yet, in the face of this obvious damage, I still look back on the experience and smile, wishing I could live through it again.

            I miss my father’s beard.

 

October, 1994

            His 1987 Buick LeSabre’s beefy six cylinders rumble before him. His right foot pins the accelerator to the floor as he screams down Henry County road M-2 – known to the local high schoolers as “Hell” due to its creepy, gothic overgrowth of ancient oaks. The speedometer needle disappears behind the dashboard, having left its last noted speed, 85, long ago.

            His eyes carefully focus on the narrow strip of asphalt, lined between two deep ditches. The night sky stretches out before him as he slides the long fingers of his left hand to the headlight switch, darkening the road and leaving the cloud-covered moon his only illumination.

            He drives.

 

 

            The rest of my high school career was marked by a series of stupid and dangerous behavioral choices. Certainly, most teenagers at some point drive their cars too fast on country roads – but I’m not sure how many consistently pulled what I came to call “External stealth mode.” Greene et al. (2000) explain the differences between standard adolescent high-risk behavior and motivated, aggressive risk-taking. They would draw a link to a desire for self-fulfillment. I can’t say I disagree. In the face of risk and disaster, I consistently chose the course of action that would sate a yearning for the speed, a yearning for the excitement.

 

June 12, 1998

            He’s doing his summer internship at the local radio station as a reporter. He receives a phone call informing him of a hostage situation down in Berry, a lower-class neighborhood by the river. He grabs his brick-like cell phone, a tape recorder, and a reporter’s notepad and jumps into his LeSabre. Arriving at the scene, he finds a police presence worthy of a presidential visit surrounding the block. He collects his courage and strides up to a black-clad officer standing in front of a barricade.

            “Hello, I’m Tim Burke from WZOM and I’d like to know what’s happening.”

            “Can’t tell you anything. Sorry.”

            The boy tries again with other officers, and rotates around the block, trying to get a better look at the house where the incident appears to be taking place. His resilience leads to some progress, finding the story to be the following: man comes home, finds wife has been cheating on him, and pulls a gun on her. The man is also claiming to have a “sizable amount” of TNT as well. The boy continues roaming the area, trying to find the best spot to watch the events unfold. As reporters arrive from Toledo with their satellite trucks and fancy equipment, law enforcement decides to stop briefing the media on details.

            The boy becomes the source for everyone’s facts on the crisis. He proudly shares it with the cute brunette from the NBC affiliate, the one he knows graduated from his school’s rival journalism program only a few years prior.

            “But,” he says, “I have to get back to finding out more about the situation.” He leaves her, smirking to himself, and heads down the block to spew the same scarce information to the blonde from the CBS station.

            Hours pass with no result, as the negotiator tries to extract the hostage safely. The boy finds a viewing spot on the porch of a neighboring house, in direct line of the back door of the hostage-taker’s home. If he were to come out with guns blazing, this would be a bad place to sit. It doesn’t matter to the intrepid reporter, with his cell phone pressed to his ear, recording every moment for immediate broadcast.

            Then, more quickly than the reporter can describe in words,the criminal concedes defeat and offers himself up to police without a fight. The boy is disappointed at an opportunity missed.

            And, as it turns out, there never was any TNT.

 

            I felt defeated. While I had been the first on the scene, the first to report the hostage crisis, and the go-to man for the other journalists, reporters whom I looked up to and hoped to be one day, reality hadn’t matched what my imagination had created. I didn’t want bullets whizzing past my head, but a firefight sounded intriguing to me. Typically, we hope situations like this end without violence. It did. I was hoping for something else – perhaps not violence, per se, but the appearance of violence. The possibility of violence. The attempt at violence.

            Something with action.

               

March 20, 1999

            It’s his spring break. Again, he’s working as a reporter for the local radio station, covering a Ku Klux Klan rally in the nearby town of Defiance. For weeks, the newspapers have carried editorials and letters from townspeople hoping for a peaceful, and brief, visit by the hatemongerers.

            Carrying his Marantz tape deck over his shoulder and wearing his grey felt reporter’s cap he enters through the journalists’ gate, steps through a metal detector, and finds chain link fences corralling the media between square cages on each side – one for self-professed Klan supporters, the other for the anti-Klan protestors. The media corral spans about eight feed wide.

            He squints into the sun to see snipers perched atop the county courthouse, where the racist thugs elected to hold their rally. The cage designated for those protesting the Klan’s presence is already full of young college students, also on their spring break. The boy wonders whether he should be over there instead.

            The other side slowly gathers a handful of rednecks with long hair, flannel jackets, and Confederate flag t-shirts.

            The rally begins with a loud and distorted playing of “Dixie” on a PA system. The white-robed Klansmen parade in front of the courthouse. There’s only about eight of them, each carrying a Confederate flag or the red and black cross of the Klan. The jeers begin immediately.

            “Get out!”

            “We don’t want you here!”

            “Go back to Alabama!”

            The cameras roll and the boy presses “Record” on his tape deck. The lectures begin. The boy is surprised at the nature of the hateful rhetoric. African-Americans are never mentioned. Today’s topic of Klan conversation seems to be Latinos.          

            “Them wetbacks are takin’ yer jobs!”

            “You people are gonna let them spics get the best of you??”

            The college students, bored, turn to face the ragtag group of Klan supporters who scream at them through the fence. The words quickly become ugly and the poorly-supported fences begin to shake.

            The Klan’s courthouse activities are swiftly forgotten as media members scramble to get a good shot of the havoc. Violence is pledged, on both sides. Some covert protestors enter the supporters’ side, and fisticuffs erupt. The fences appear ready to fall at any moment. Cameramen gather their tripods and scramble to the exit, while blonde reporters trip in their high heels on the brick pavement, no doubt questioning whether their safety is worth an audition tape-worthy standup.

            The boy stands there, taking it all in, calmly monitoring the audio volume levels on his tape deck’s VU meter. He, too, is thinking of his audition tape. Unfortunately, the police break up the groups and declare an end to the rally before a full-blown riot can erupt. The college students rush to the Klan supporters’ exit, hoping for a crack at the rednecks, unaware of the irony of their desire for violence.

            The inadequacy of the previously seemingly excessive police presence soon becomes evident. Overalls-wearing Klan supporters begin a sprint to their car, parked three blocks down Second Street. A chase ensues, and the boy is in the middle of it, soaking in the chaos, hoping for an indelible image of violence to report later.

            The supporters reach their white Buick and escape, as the crowd throws shoes and rocks, cracking their rear window as they speed away. The police, having long given up on controlling the mass of angry students, watch quietly from the sidewalk, hands cupping their gun holsters.

            The crowd quickly disperses and the street grows quiet, silence broken only by the occasional crackle of a police radio.

 

 

            I don’t consider myself a violent person. I’ve been in very few fights in my life, and, by my memory, picked none of them. Yet I remember distinctly that desire to see a brawl erupt. Halfway through the sprint to the white Buick the need to witness chaos mixed with my liberal hate of the racist Klan supporters like the pouring of vinegar into a baking-soda volcano. It exploded.

            The peaceful result everyone had hoped for didn’t happen. Certainly, it could have been a lot worse. I lamented the outcome, but not in the way my fellow citizens did. Perhaps I had in mind the violence portrayed in John Grisham’s A Time to Kill. I felt, at the time, the climax would be the moment when the other journalists scattered, thinking the fences would come down. (They never did, a testament to Toledo Fence Supply.) It was that point of danger that I had been seeking, in the midst of a total breakdown in control, in the midst of impending chaos.

 

April 20, 1999

            He comes home from his morning class and turns on CNN, his news channel of choice. He grabs the tin of Skoal, puts in a dip, and opens a book, but gets only to the first page as news breaks of a shooting in Colorado. His eyes grow wide and he curses only owning one television.

            He doesn’t move from the futon for hours. The massacre intrigues him. He wonders if the windows will shatter at any moment from the blast of the alleged pipe bombs buried within.

            He wants to be there. He wants to be among those still not knowing if the killers were alive. He wants to shake with the fear of wondering what the next step would be.

 

 

            I’ve tried to place myself in that school on that morning in Littleton. I’ve tried to imagine the pure hell that it would have been to experience the massacre. Unable to place myself physically, I have to resort to television – a poor substitute. A sick feeling creeps into my body when I try and relive a day that, in the end, turned out to be the turning point of my life. On April 21, I called the chair of the Communication & Theatre Arts department at Eastern Michigan University and inquired about an offer he’d made me only days before to be a graduate assistant in his department, and leave journalism behind.

            I realized that my need and desire for the high-threat situations, combined with the increased access to those situations due to being a journalist, would certainly end badly for me as a human being. I had to cut off my hand to save my soul.

 

November 7, 2000

            He sits in the corner room of the Tower Inn restaurant and lounge in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Tom Brokaw’s face stares back from a 60-inch television along the wall. He’s calling states – Vermont goes Gore. South Carolina for Bush. Virginia for Bush.

            The beers come quickly. The beers go quickly. Florida is called for Gore and the left half of the room erupts Later, Brokaw changes his mind.

            All of us networks made a mistake and projected Florida in the Al Gore column. It was our mistake

            He calls Florida for Bush. The other half cheers. The boy gets progressively drunk and most of his friends head home for the evening. He gets up to leave when Brokaw comes back on the screen.

            We now will be considering Florida too close to call.

            Another beer is ordered. The boy returns to his seat and vows not to leave it until he knows who his next President will be. The bar owner, a Greek immigrant used to the grad student regulars in his back room, keeps the bar open.

            “Don’t expect this to be a regular thing, ya?”

            Little changes in the next six hours, but the ragtag group of political junkies continue drinking and smoking. Talking heads keep talking.

            This is a worst-case scenario.

            “This is a best-case scenario,” the boy thinks to himself, soaking in the smoke, booze, and confusion. He always loved indecision, probability, Schröedinger's cat.

            At 8:00, the boy struggles to his feet, aware he has to teach class at 8:30. He staggers across campus to the classroom, smartly leaving his car at the Tower Inn.

            His students are only slightly more awake than he. The boy moves to the blackboard, grabs a small piece of white chalk, and slowly writes in large letters on the blackboard.

            CHAOS.

            He looks at his class, winks at the cute theatre major in the front row, and shuffles out of the room. He walks three blocks back to his apartment, shrugs off the brown tweed jacket that had embraced his shoulders for the last 24 hours, and collapses into bed.

 

            I’ve always felt that night to be a kind of quiet chaos. The action, as we now know, was taking place in Florida ballot-counting rooms – the news reporters could only relay their best interpretation of what was happening within them. For the first time, I regretted my decision to leave journalism. I found myself on the telephone with my friends who occupied newsrooms, begging for the latest scoop. My students grew used to my unshaven face, with its dark circles and unkempt sideburns. It probably looked like I was unhappy. In the end, after the Supreme Court decision, I was. But up until that point, I was loving every minute – and losing a lot of sleep. I’d hoped the chaos and confusion would last through the New Year, and the election would be thrown to the House, providing me the President I hadn’t voted for, but a political disaster I could eat up for years. As it turned out, I got the President I didn’t want, and in a way that left me wanting a lot more.

 

September 11, 2001 – 9:00 a.m.

            He ends class early, like he usually does on Tuesday mornings. He steps into his department chair’s office as he does every day after class.

            “You hear about what happened in New York?”

            “No…?”

            “About fifteen minutes ago a plane crashed into the World Trade Center.”

            “No shit.”

            He rushes to his office, causing posters and handbills on the hallway bulletin boards to go flying. A small black and white television sits upon his desk. He tunes in NBC, the only station that he can tune in from campus. His nose crinkles as his eyes try to focus through the blurred screen. Matt Lauer announces the second plane has just hit.

            He bursts out into the hallway and finds department colleagues each sticking their heads out their doors, amazed at what they’re seeing. The television station advisor unlocks the control room door and turns The Today Show on each of the monitors. The six professors stand there, silently witnessing what would become their nation’s darkest day. Nothing is said. Nothing has to be.

            Soon, word is received that the college president has canceled classes for the day. The boy calmly walks to his car and drives the 20 minutes back to his house. He glances at the other drivers on the highway. Each share a similar 1,000 yard stare.

            He pulls into his driveway, unlocks the door, and descends the creaky wooden stairs to his basement and finds his American flag. He grabs a hammer and two nails from his work bench, and hangs the flag from his front porch. He goes back inside, pulling the screen door shut so it doesn’t slam.

            He tunes one television to NBC and the other to CNN. Pulling up a news chat room, he glances at the latest rumors.

            <dinodrac> ABC - Oil Refineries in Gulf of Mexico locked down.

            <ttownboi1> According to the Jerusalem Post, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine has claimed responsibility for WTC attacks.

            <RevTom> Major League Baseball: All games for the remainder of the season indefinitely postponed. Possible cancelled.

            <Underdog> ok!, how many planes were there.. and how many crashed? EVERYONE keeps saying. 8, or 11, or 4.... whats the OFFICAL #?

            The screens grow green, grey, blue, and white. He waits for news of another attack. It doesn’t seem like something this big would be over already. The number of dead doesn’t register to him. He tries to keep the energy and chaos of the morning continuing into the evening, but it doesn’t happen. He tries to will all the false rumors true, but they don’t happen either.

            He thinks now might be a good time to call his girlfriend.

 

 

            A popular idea in American culture is the asking of “Where were you?” followed by the assumption that when a sad, notable moment in history occurs, we’d like to be as far away from it as possible. Most people who work in Manhattan but live elsewhere and hadn’t made it to work yet that day say they’re glad they didn’t. But I wanted to be there. I wanted to be the man in the backpack, escaping the dust cloud that consumed Canal street. I wanted not to be a spectator to the action, but to be a participant. A player. An actor.

            It took weeks for the guilt about my reaction to kick in. The body counts and personalization of the victims helped. Still, there’s an echoing call, like the chorus of the John Denver song: “I wish I could have been there.” It’s as if the single defining moment of an alchemist’s concoction of chaos, danger, and disaster happened and I wasn’t a full participant – missed the chance for my ultimate high.

            A common misconception is that guilt builds into self-hate. Not so. Self hate, as defined by Bushman & Baumeister (1998), is a specific lack of self-esteem. I’ve equipped with a healthy amount of that. In fact, Cramond (1995) explains that high levels of personal ego can be commonly linked with high-thrill seeking individuals (especially when linked with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder). It’s still unclear how this factors into my personal reaction to public tragedy, however. It’s a personally troubling issue.

 

August 13, 2004 – 6:00 p.m.

            Steve Jerve’s blond head is talking to him, but he quit listening hours ago. Charley is well on his way to Orlando, and he’sleepy. It barely even rained. His roommates Jenn and Caitlin both went to take naps after realizing there wasn’t gonna be a hurricane today.

            The boy picks up his video camera and digicam from the back porch, plugs the cork back into a bottle of Chardonnay and puts it into the refrigerator, and trudges upstairs to his bedroom.

            15 instant messages await him on the computer screen.

                        Canalian (1:41:16 PM): getting a little breezy there?

                        markwsickmiller (2:26:21 PM): dude, that hurricane is going directly                                              into tampa bay

                        Tautura (2:33:19 PM): shouldn't you be evacuating?

                        adamsickmiller (2:58:13 PM): how likely is your building to blow down?

            He laughs a little and wishes he had more to tell his friends. As it was, it was a whole lot of nothing, at least for him.

            He lays down on the bed, glances once more at the blond meteorologist, and falls into wine and bourbon-induced slumber.

 

September 5, 2004 – 8:30 a.m.

            He sits on the back porch with a glass of Chardonnay, the wine left over from the last hurricane. He smokes cigarettes with his roommate Jenn and watches the trees in their backyard calmly sway. He’s convinced it’ll be better this time, more exciting. More dangerous. Foreign objects will go flying by his window. He’s sure of it.

            It rains. The wind blows, but not particularly hard, by his opinion. The litany of hurri-concern from friends continues.

                        Canalian (12:00:42 PM): Nice day for windsurfing I hear

                        javank (1:25:40 PM): um, is it windy there

            By two o’clock the power’s gone out and Jenn has gone back to take a nap. He grabs his guitar, sits on the porch, and strums out chords from a songbook he made back in high school, singing along, and hearing the reverberations off the concrete walls of the porch.

            It’s twelve o’clock and it’s a wonderful day

            I know you hate me but I’ll ask anyway

            Oooh! Wait ‘til tomorrow!

            The boy thinks it’s going to get worse. He believes it will get worse. He has a dramatic image in his mind’s eye of what a hurricane is supposed to look like, and knows that reality will merge with his imagination. It doesn’t. His shoulders slump and his brows furrow with frustration. His friends call him up and invite him down to Temple Terrace to hang out. At least they have power. He packs a cooler with food from the fridge and drives, frustrated at being disappointed again.

 

September 26, 2004 – 8:30 a.m.

                        Canalian (1:06:04 AM): hey, how's the weather there?

            He and his roommate are now used to the routine. Bottle of wine, back porch, Parliament Lights. He’s smoked more cigarettes in the past month than the rest of his life combined. His lungs feel like they’ve been soaked in molasses. He’s got hope that this will be the big one, but it’s tempered by the disappointments that were Charley and Frances.

            Hours pass and he is not impressed. It looks strikingly similar to the one he saw three weeks ago. Steve Jerve’s voice echoes from the other room, repeating the same information he’s heard all morning – then is silenced. Power’s out again.

            The boy grabs a bagel, a cup of coffee, and John Irving’s The World According to Garp. At least he knows T.S. Garp won’t be a letdown.

 

 

            The hurricanes were hardly a letdown for the 126 people who died because of them. They were hardly a letdown for the 25,000 families who lost their homes as a result of Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne (“44 Days of Dread,” 2004). It’s insulting and offensive to wish for a devastating hurricane.

            Yet that’s exactly what happened. And things didn’t change much after Jeanne. I anxiously awaited Florida’s fifth hurricane, sure it would approach us at any moment. I obsessively clicked my National Hurricane Center RSS feed bookmark on my browser, hoping for news of a new Atlantic tropical storm, sighing with displeasure every time I was informed there was none. Even as I was brought face to face with the devastation they brought, I felt disappointment. I felt like I’d been built up to expect the worst, and I personally didn’t see it.

            All told, I said, I preferred blizzards.

            I’m not happy with my response. My heart turns black when, for example, a friend just starting his first job at West Florida tells me his house suffered $50,000 in damage. That’s more than my first house cost.

            In the end, I find myself more often than not silently disagreeing with the public response to impending disaster.  Is it because my own life lacks drama? Or is it the opposite, that I have been exposed to so much, that I am desensitized to anything but pure, utter, horrific disaster?

            In any case, there’s a great deal of personal growth that needs to take place. There’s a reason the anecdotes are written in third person, and always refer to a “boy.” In my mind’s eye, when looking at the stories and how they happened, that’s who I see. It’s always that second-grader in the green and black shirt, whether he’s on the porch watching a hurricane, soaking in the chaos of a Klan rally, driving in darkened silence, or sitting crosslegged in front of a television, glowing with the 120th replay of a jetliner crashing into the World Trade Center. That little boy is the one reacting that way, because a grown man would know better. And that’s where the guilt comes in.

            They say those of us who went to Catholic school are particularly susceptible to feelings of unwarranted guilt. That might be true. I think my guilt is deserved. I think it’s proper to feel guilty about wanting hurricanes. I think it’s proper to feel guilty about wanting to experience a terrorist attack. I think that’s reasonable. And I think it’s reasonable to use the word guilt rather than shame. I see my reactions as behavioral, not personal (Henry, 2003). I want to believe I have a choice in the way I respond to the world around me. I have to maintain that assertion, because living a life in search of danger is best left to Hollywood film heroes and heroines.

            Philosopher James Park (2001) explains the purpose of guilt is to demonstrate deviation from social norms in order to force conformity. After the episodes presented in this memoir, and the guilt not just recalled but recreated through the writing of these words, has conformity happened?

            Not yet, it would seem.

 

 

 

November 17, 2004

            It’s nearing the end of hurricane season. There hasn’t been an Atlantic tropical storm since Matthew, over a month ago. There’s little chance, now, of another one developing. Yet, he still obsessively clicks the link on the left side of his web browser. Hoping. Anticipating.

 

            Click.

           

            There are no active Atlantic tropical cyclones at this time.

 

     Click.

 

            There are no active Atlantic tropical cyclones at this time.

 

     Click.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

 

44 days of dread (2004, November 26). The Tampa Tribune, S1.

Cramond, B. (1995). The coincidence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and creativity. Retrieved from http://www.borntoexplore.org/adhd.htm on November 20, 2004.

Greene, K. et al. (2000). Targeting adolescent risk-taking behaviors: The contributions of egocentrism and sensation-seeking. Journal of Adolescence, 23, 439-461.

Park, J. (2001). Our existential predicament: Loneliness, depression, anxiety, & death. Minneapolis: Existential Books.