Monday, July 30, 2012

Blinders, Part I

There were still horse-drawn carts when I grew up in Paris. The hooves made clopping sounds on the cobblestones, and the horses were not the sleek and shiny beasts of movies and race tracks. Instead, they were weary animals bedeviled by flies; they pulled loads of coal or cement or junk, and they wore blinders. I was told in school this was so they could only look straight ahead and not be overly concerned with what happened to their right or their left.

Recently, I’ve come to think the same thing is happening here to the leadership and population at large. We have blinders on; we do not want to be distracted from what lies directly before us, and because of this we’ve allowed a host of truly important issues to be merely discussed—endlessly—and not acted upon. 

Five overwhelming concerns leap to mind: gun control, infrastructure, the war on drugs, the financial rape of the average citizen, and the biggest bugaboo of them all, serious and effective political reform that would prod our openly somnolent public servants to action.

Gun control:  According to the Washington Post, mass murder by definition involves the killing of at least four victims in one incident. From 1976 to 2010, there were 645 mass murders—the overwhelming majority involving firearms—leaving behind the bodies of 2,949 men, women and children. 
That’s a lot of folks, folks. Our legislators have taken the easy way out, typified by a statement from Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, who told the press, “You can’t stop crazy people from doing crazy stuff.”  It’s interesting how such a figurative shrug-off works. By blaming crazy people, we can absolve ourselves of any responsibility for follow-up action. I’m reminded that World War I was set off by the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. I suppose Tester would have called the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, just another gun-totting crazy guy over whom we were powerless.
Thirty-four years of mass murders, of course, are a drop in the bucket compared to the everyday mass-killing perpetrated by gun wielders. Eighty-four people are shot dead daily in this country. Think of that. Think of your children and family and friends and workmates all dying violently in one day… It amazes me that there are no permanent demonstrations against gun violence, and that we have accepted such damning statistics as a suitable cost of living in the USA.

Infrastructure: Over the coming decade, deteriorating infrastructure will pick $7000 from the pockets of each and every American household.  That, of course, is an abstract and symbolic number representing costs of lost wages because of time spent in congestion or in poor transit systems, and the wear-and-tear on cars by rough roads. In reality, this number from a recently released report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, attempts to illustrate a micro level. Thinking macro, we get 870,000 jobs or “a $3.1 trillion suppression of the GDP” before the decade is out.

A few simple examples:

  • There are almost 600,000 bridges in the US. More than 150,000 of these are deficient. 
  • We are spending $42 billion each year on highway maintenance.  We should be spending $146 to $310 billions annually over the next decade.
  • Four-thousand-four-hundred of our 84,000 dams are deficient.
  • Only 11 cities in the US have subway systems, some dating from the 1900s. All of them are in dire need of repairs.
  • The 94,000 public schools in the country account for some $20 billion in annual spending. To work efficiently they need $254 billion.
  • The 360 seaports in the US get $850 million annually but more than twice that is required for routine maintenance. 
  • The pipes that deliver drinking water are mostly underground and falling apart. It will cost $335 billion to updates all the systems. Currently, less than a tenth of that sum is budgeted.
  • A massive blackout could cripple the nation and its economy.  The country’s 157,000 miles of power line comprising the electrical grid need an infusion of $338 billion to pay for modernization and stave off almost certain failure.
More to come… 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Surgery, etc.

On Thursday at 9:15 in the morning an anesthesiologist will insert an IV into a largish vein in the crook of my left elbow and pump into me an elegant mélange of chemicals that will knock me out. I will be under long enough for the surgeon to excise whatever cancerous nastiness has taken occupancy in my bladder, and then I will come out of it feeling nasty, peevish, soiled and angry. The last time I went under and then came to, I insisted on having a bacon-cheeseburger. I don’t remember if I actually ate one, but I wanted it badly.

Since I will be non compo mentis when I awake, the surgeon will tell my friend Paul, who took me to surgery and will remain in the area, what the operation entailed, if it was successful, and what I should be doing for the next few hours and days.  Paul, in turn, will tell me.

I don’t like going under. Thursday will mark the fourth time I’ll have been anesthetized in a 12-months period, and I’m convinced no good can come of this sort of unconsciousness. I understand the necessity of the procedure—where I to twitch, the surgeon might accidentally puncture my bladder, which would be, to quote him, “a not good thing.” Still, I worry about a massive brain cell die-off, which I understand is not uncommon in people who go under too often. I have no brain cells to spare, and even though modern science has demonstrated that the cells repair themselves, I think mine are very, very slow to do almost anything, and the repairs are likely to be as swift and effective as a those done by a Washington, DC, road crew.

I have noticed that medical website minimize the dangers of full-body anesthesia, telling me that serious side effects are uncommon in people who are otherwise healthy and can be easily managed. The side effects, not the people.

Here’s what I know: General anesthesia suppresses the normal throat reflexes that prevent aspiration, such as swallowing, coughing, or gagging. To help prevent aspiration, a tube is inserted down the throat, in order to protect the lungs from stuff coming up from the stomach, hence the usual instructions to patients not to eat or drink anything for a certain number of hours before anesthesia.

Insertion or removal of the tube may cause respiratory problems such as coughing or gagging, as well as an increase in blood pressure and heart rate. There’s also the possibility of damaging the teeth and lips, swelling in the larynx and attendant sore throat and hoarseness. After the first operation, I found I couldn’t swallow without pain for about three hours.  

I’ll probably have nausea and vomiting after the procedure—that happened with the first two surgeries—but that will go away after I take antiemetics.
Actually, here’s my main concern: waking up during the surgery. That has happened to me twice before many years ago when the anesthesiologist poo-pooed my worries that my once-addicted liver has a tendency to assimilate anesthetics a lot quicker than the same organ in normal people. I make it a point to tell my history to the person administrating the drugs, but I do remember not that long ago having an attending nurse argue with me on the subject.

Now I simply hope that the anesthesia specialist will pay attention and prevent a premature awakening. After all, this ain’t brain surgery.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Bang Bang You’re Dead

Oh hum, another massacre, in Colorado, was it? How many this time, 12, and half-a-hundred wounded? And last time, where was it, Arizona? Michigan? Ah, the all-American horror. People with guns shooting down innocents in public venues has become as Red White and Blue as apple pie.

There’s no sense deluding ourselves. The killings don’t matter. The all-powerful gun lobby has already begun revving its engines, and we no longer even consider that a change in the firearm laws might be possible. Soon the apologists will tell us that guns don’t kill people—an outrageous lie on the face of it—and that asking for change is a shameless use of tragedy to further a political agenda.

Me, I remain astounded, disgusted, bemused in a horrible way. I live just a few miles from the headquarters of the National Rifle Association, and I pass the big, glass-sheathed building at least once a week. Every time I do, I wonder what would happen if a deranged young man—because that’s more often than not who does the shooting—were to appear in the NRA’s lobby armored and armed to the teeth with Glocks, assault rifles, grenades and shotguns. Does the NRA have a contingency plan for such an event? And if a massacre were to occur there, would we in the aftermath hear that same ridiculous falsehood? Well yes, of course we would. Presidents have fallen, as have Congressmen and Congresswomen, students, elderly people passing by and small children playing in front yards, and still the refrain remains.

What the latest outrage points to is the great cowardliness of our elected officials. It pains me to remember that Obama addressed the gun issue during his first campaign, and has refused to consider it since his arrival at the White House. 

Whenever the smallest anti-gun tremor sweeps the land, the NRA dutifully takes the offensive. No sooner had the smoke cleared form the Virginia Tech killings than a suggestion came from the NRA headquarters. Let’s arm all the students, said the pro-gunners, so they can defend themselves should another madman terrorize the campus. The idea was ludicrous and got no traction. Even die-hard members of the Association distanced themselves, at least for a little while.

Gun-based outrages often beget legal outrages, such the laws passed by several state Senates allowing the carrying of concealed weapons without permits.  In Florida, the so-called Stand Your Ground laws essentially remove a person’s duty to retreat and dictate the person may use deadly force if he or she “reasonably” believes their life is in danger. Stripping the law of legalese BS, it enables people with little or no training in such things to make a split-second decision to wound or end the life of someone else.  Essentially, according to the SYG law, a judge can grant immunity to a defendant should he or she find that “Stand Your Ground” applies.

Here inside the Capital Beltway, the outrage at mass murders left the building long ago. There is not the dimmest hope that the Colorado killings will alter anything. There will be tut-tutting, and hand-wringing, and tears, and memorial services attended by politicians, and family members of the victims and the assailant will be interviewed. The President, or First Lady--maybe both since this is an election year--will fly to Colorado for an hour or two. The mental health of the presumed shooter will be examined in painstaking details by a plethora of experts who will come to the same inescapable conclusion: the young man was not in his right mind. That such a deranged person had access to firearms will not be an issue though there may be some discussion on how he came to possess the weapons. Faults will be found, but not with the existing laws that, claiming to protect the Second Amendment, allow almost anyone to buy guns.

It’s too late to try to enact gun registration laws. The estimated total number of guns held by civilians in the US is 270,000,000 and there is not a single entity, government or private, capable of organizing or enforcing registration. So let’s do something else.  Let’s regulate ammo. That’s feasible. It’s not an immediate solution, since existing ammunition will have to be grandfathered, but it’s a start. Laws controlling the flow of bullets and shells to gun users will allow our officials to remain cowards by sidestepping the issue, and this is OK. Cowards who act are better than brave people who do not.

And remember, you heard it here first.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Glorious Food

To eat is a necessity. To eat intelligently is an art.  La Rochefoucauld

There is no love sincerer than the love of food. George Bernard Shaw

Supersize Me. Morgan Spurlock

In America, the best way to become invisible is to be fat.

In 2008, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, the obesity rate among men was 32.2 percent and a slightly higher 35.5 percent for women.  The numbers were confirmed, then revised by the Center for Disease Control which, in 2010, estimated the rate had increased to 35.7 percent for adults, and remained at a steady 17 percent for American children.

We eat too much and we eat the wrong foods; we are enamored of salt, sugar and fat, and we don’t exercise nearly enough. We snack. Food is everywhere; it is a religion. There are more restaurants per capita in the United States than anywhere else in the world. In New York State alone, there are 17,461 fast food places and according to the US Department of Agriculture, the Empire State is considered one of the healthier areas, food-wise.  Not so are Vermont, Washington, DC, Maine, Montana and Rhode Island, which have more fast food restaurants per capita than any other states. (You can find out how many fast food restaurants are in your state by going to the USDA’s website, The country is dotted with some 160,000 fast food restaurants that serve 50 million Americans daily and make $110 billion annually. Most, though not all, sell high-calorie, high-starch, high-carbohydrate, and low fiber foods made with corn syrup, and refined sugar and flour. The fact is, the way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000 but our desire for more—of everything—has stayed the same.

So here’s a question: Is obesity a disease, or is it a philosophy?

In a way, it’s amusing. In European literature and theater, obesity implied wealth and well-being. A family with abundant food on the table liked to display its affluence and attendant physiques and the fat bourgeois and his wife and children were often the object of ridicule both in print and on stage. Think Molière.

Now, in a similar and strange turn of fate that made rednecks grow their hair long, it is the poor who are fat while the rich eat less. And on the third Thursday of November, we all—wealthy and not—cheerfully celebrate a national day of gluttony.

But the fact is we have labeled obesity in its simplest form: overindulgence. In the Western world, and increasingly everywhere else, this is a trait that characterizes our way of life. We are nations of overindulgent consumers whose tastes for excess are not necessarily limited to food. Our obesity in all forms, far from being limited to the larder, guides our lives.

Perhaps this is the logical culmination of free enterprise. We are taught to never be satisfied with what we have; in many ways the American Dream is one of escaping a life of less for a life of more. We want homes bigger than the ones we grew up in, jobs with more responsibilities than our parents ever had, and salaries that would astound our forefathers.  We want more for less, and with food, this is a realizable ambition.

Orson Wells was right. Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Proust and Me

Marcel Proust, the French writer whose Remembrances of Things Past   (A la recherche du temps perdu) ranks high in Western culture as a book everyone quotes and no one honestly reads, writes of tasting a Madeleine and being transported back to childhood. Though both French and writer, and despite not being a Proust, I recently had a Proustean moment. It was not with pastry but with paté. 

Specifically, rillettes, a coarse, peasantish pork dish that has little in common with the more elegant mousses, fois gras, or quenelles favored by blue bloods. Rillettes comprise pork belly, garlic, ground pepper, salt, and herbs that vary according to the region. The recipe is not complex, but it is time consuming. In France, rilletes are a staple of cafés and brasseries where they are spread on slices of buttered baguettes and eaten with cornichons (gherkins) and a glass of the house red wine. They’re inexpensive, filling, savory, and proudly blue collar.

Rillettes were among my father’s favorite foods, though my mother, of a somewhat higher social class than he, looked down upon them and claimed they smelled bad. Much to her disgust, he instilled in me a deep appreciation for the dish. When I brought him to the US after my mother’s death, we found a lone restaurant in Georgetown, Le Pied de Cochon (now a Five Guys hamburger place), that served the dish. The rillettes there weren’t as good as the ones found in Paris, and certainly no match for those from Bretagne, but beggars can’t be choosers. Until his death, my father and I ate rillettes once or twice a month for three years and were never disappointed.

Recently, I found rillettes in a local high-end food store, there alongside the chi-chi cheeses that cost $40 a pound and the rare wines from Argentina and Estonia. I bought a small plastic container of two ounces for almost eight dollars. It was worth every penny and I now understand Proust.

I scraped the thin layer of suet off, scooped out a dollop, spread it on a piece of French bread and… was instantly eight years old again, sitting on the beach in Benodet, Bretagne, watching my tall, thin, war-hero father dive into the frigid water, swim beneath the waves for far too long and emerge, laughing and breathless from the cold as my mother, shaking her head at the foolishness of men in general and her husband in particular, held out a thin towel for him. He splashed his way back to shore and threw a handful of cold water on her, then dragged me into the surf. I squealed with pleasure and fright, and to this day this small event remains one of the fondest memories I have of childhood.

That day there were rillettes, cooked with a hint of anise, hard-boiled eggs, country sausage and hard brown bread, mortadelle,  Pernod for the adults and grenadine syrup for the kids. There was lobster with home-made mayonnaise, too, and sea urchins, shrimp, oysters and other delicacies that the children found horrific. It was a perfect day.

Back here in the States, I ate and dreamed, then I covered the fatty treasure in plastic wrap and placed them in the fridge next to the black cherries and a wedge of ripe Port Salut. Were my father alive, he would have methodically set the table in the dining room with real silverware and napkins, then raided the fridge for his favorite meal of cheese, fruit, and rillettes.

In mediocre times, these are good things to remember.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Slice of Life

I am at the 7-11, running late for a meeting but wanting coffee nevertheless. I am tired. It is not yet ten in the morning and already the heat has hit 90.  Two Latino gentlemen are at the coffee bar. They are pouring endless little containers of Half and Half creamer into their cups, carefully stirring in multiple packs of the stuff that comes in the tiny yellow packets. This is serious business, requiring concentration. They are blocking the way, oblivious or perhaps not. Open container, pour, stir coffee, add sugar, taste, repeat.  They are talking loudly to one another, discussing either the wedding night of their friend Luis, or how to tune the carburetor of a 1984 Toyota. My Spanish, once Castilian, once almost fluent, can catch only words here and there. Then one of them makes a hand gesture obscene in 156 countries and I am pretty sure it’s not a carburetor they are alluding to.

The shorter of the two pretends to notice me for the first time. He is wearing stained painters’ pants and a faded blue t-shirt that reads Vagina Is for Lovers and I wonder if perhaps someone gave this to him when he first arrived here and didn’t let him in on the (bad) joke. He wears a thin wedding ring on his left hand. Is his wife in the US with him and if so, what does she think of the T-shirt? I’m pretty certain the word vagina is the same in English and Spanish.  He sizes me up.  I am much bigger, wider and older. No more than 15 seconds have gone by, an eternity of time in such a situation.

I address him with a small smile. He smiles back, nods his head as if we have reached a secret understanding, which perhaps we have, though I don’t know what the covenant might entail. I just want to some coffee, in spite of the heat.

Does the coffee/creamer/sweetener ritual bring them back to another time and another country? Do they have little white containers of non-dairy chemicals nd artificial sugar in El Salvador or Nicaragua? I imagine the coffee has to be better than the watery brew served by 7-11.

Both men get to the checkout counter with their coffees before I do, and both opt to purchase lottery tickets. They point to what they want, and the young man behind the cash register, a recently-arrived Pakistani, is confused. Do the customers want this ticket, or that one? The Latino men want both, it seems. The taller of the two lays a wrinkled $20 on the counter and points again, but the employee keeps giving them the wrong tickets. One of the Latino men—the shorter one with the vagina T-shirt, mutters maricon. This is a word I know (thank you, summer semester in Santander), and apparently the Pakistani knows it as well because he frowns, makes a hissing sound between his teeth and sweeps all the tickets off the counter and back into a glass case.  Vagina t-shirt looks as if he might hurl himself at the Pakistani, and just when I think this might get both ugly and interesting, a Falls Church police car pulls into a parking space fronting the store.

For the merest instant, I wonder if Señor T-Shirt will up the ante but his colleague grabs him by the arm and pulls him from the counter. The Falls Church cop enters and heads for the Slurpee machine. The T-shirt grabs the $20, and both abandon their coffees as they leave the store with false nonchalance. The cop, busy mixing pina-colada and sour cherry, has not noticed them. Or perhaps he has but decided a Slurpee on a steaming day is better than the enforcement of his nation’s misguided immigration policies.

All in all, perhaps two minutes-and-a-half have elapsed. Life in miniature.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

And Meanwhile in the Ukraine

I haven’t given much thought to the Ukraine recently or, to be honest, ever. I’ve wondered idly why it’s the Ukraine, because I don’t think anyone wants to take the name away, or that there are a Greater Ukraine and a Lesser Ukraine. I’ve been told by people who’ve been there that it’s sort of like Baltimore—pretty in some places, not so pretty in others. One person unkindly called it Yukraine, but this is the same acquaintance who mourned the closing of the McDonalds on the Champs-Elysées in Paris, so I don’t take him too seriously.

But in the Ukraine this week, people are upset over legislation allowing some regions of the country to use the Russian language in courts, schools, and government institutions. I feel for these Ukrainians because it is my contention that a country’s language is its heartbeat, its unifying factor, a source of pride, a necessity, a net, if you will, that encompasses the nation’s history and its future.  

The Ukraine, you might remember, was for decades an SSR, a Socialist Soviet Republic under the heel of Russia.  The largest country entirely in Europe, it broke away from its fellow SSRs in August 1991 and five years later adopted its first post-Soviet constitution. There is little love among Ukrainians for Russians (and vice versa), even though there are multiple trading and political links between the two people and Russian is routinely spoken in the eastern and southern regions of the country. Which is the rub…

Viktor Yanukovych is not a household name here, but he was elected President of the Ukraine largely by Russian-speaking Ukrainians, and he does not want to alienate the very people who put him in office. So, according to The Washington Post, he rushed the Russian-language bill through the legislature without giving the opposition much of a chance to fight back.  This led to the type of brouhaha we’re familiar with in First World countries. The Parliament Speaker—out of town during the vote—resigned, calling the vote illegal, even though his very own party endorsed it. Seven lawmakers began a hunger strike. Demonstrators wearing traditional costumes marched in Kiev where they were met by riot police wearing their traditional costumes which included helmets and truncheons. Blood was spilt, including that of Vitali Klitschko, the reigning heavyweight champion of the World Boxing Council. In other word, another fine mess.

What the non-Russian-speaking Ukrainians fear is that the bill will encourage their large neighbor to the north to foster unrest that would eventually lead to a possible Russian incursion. This is not far-fetched. The Ukraine is a wealthy nation and Russia did not like losing its footing there two decades ago. And as any historian will tell you, language is often the lynchpin to civil unrest. Be it in Belgium with Flemish, in England with Welsh, in Spain with Catalan, in France with Briton, Languedoc and Basque, and in a host of other nations in Asia, Africa, Central and South America and the Middle East, secessionist firebrands have used language as a principal weapon in their search for autonomy.  In the United States, of course, we see things differently and actually encourage the preservation and spread of languages other than English, which accounts for ATM instruction in six or more tongues, and drivers’ license exams in Farsi and Urdu.

That German in 1795 was almost selected as the official tongue of the new American republic is a legend. What is true is that the same year, a group of German-Americans petitioned Congress to recommend the printing of Federal laws in German as well as in English.  The bill was actually never voted upon, which could lead some to believe that even back then, the Founding Fathers were smart enough to believe in one country, one tongue. Some things are better off dying in committee. It might be wise to let the Ukrainians know.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Famous People

I'm standing at the checkout line of my local market with a single baking potato, two bags of overpriced lettuce, and a hydroponically grown tomato that costs two dollars, which is a lot of money for red water. The woman in front of me tells the cashier her husband took the credit cards away, and she forgot her checkbook in the car, so... Off she trundles, annoyed, to the SUV carefully parked in the shade at the rear of the lot.
The cashier looks apologetic, what're you gonna do?
I scan the magazines in the rack. People. Us. In Touch. Celebrity-something-or-other. A lot of young blond women on the covers, and short-haired young men hugging the blond women. Some are smiling. Some look annoyed. Some display de-cellulited thighs and minimal triangles of cloth across their midriffs. A lot of both the men and the women have curiously perfect chests that are perfectly displayed. 
I realize I do not know a single one of these cover people. John and Jane; Mel and Molly; Patrick and Patricia; Jen and Jude; Tito and Jenna. Wait! Tito! I know Tito! He's a famous Ultimate Fighting thugs. Now, that's better--I am not totally out of step.
But still, I am feeling a little bit out of it. I probably should know these people who command such a vast amount of space on the magazine rack. And then it strikes me: I too have had brushes with celebrities.  So here, as an exercise in vanity, are the famous people I have met, in no particular order save how I remember them.
Charles de Gaulle (former President of France). Willy Brandt (former President of Germany). Hunter S. Thompson (writer, Fear and Loathing, Hell’s Angels. etc.). The Dalai Lama (living god). Cheech and Chong (comedians). David Broder (Pulitzer prize-winning columnist). Brigitte Bardot (movie star). Mary McCarthy (writer, The Group). Jesse Owens (track star). Sonny Barger (former president of the Hell’s Angels). Barbara Mandrell (country singer). Ben Bradlee (former editor, The Washington Post). Marion Barry (disgraced mayor of Washington, DC). Margaret Mead (anthropologist and former blind date. Really.) Jimbo Manion (guitarist, Molly Hatchet). Jacques Fevrier (uncle and classical pianist). Eugene McCarthy (US Senator). Emmylou Harris (singer). Gerald and Betty Ford (former US President and First Lady). Camille Chautemps (former French Premier). Dexter Manley (former Washington Redskin). Bobby Byrd (former US Senator). Josephine Baker (singer and performer). Anna Marly (singer and performer). Hank Snow (singer). James Lee Burke (author, Dave Robicheau series). Dick Smothers (comedian). Marcel Marceau (mime). Nora Ephron (writer, director, producer). Dottie West (singer). Bernard Fall (author, Vietnam war correspondent). Bob Woodward (half of Watergate Woodward Bernstein duo). Fred Maroon (photographer). Jane Seymour (movie star). Ringo Starr (Beatle). Josh Graves (Dobro virtuoso). Brian Bowers (Autoharp virtuoso). Maybelle Carter (songwriter, performer, author of Will the Circle Be Unbroken). Jane Feather (author of 50 historical novels, NYT bestseller). Pat Nixon (spouse of you-know-who). Mike Auldridge (Dobro virtuoso). Florence Florent (author, La Galère, etc.). Tim O'Brien (author, The Things They Carried, etc.). Patrick Juvet (French rock star). Loretta Lynn (singer). Maurice Chevalier (singer and performer). Carl Bernstein (other half of Watergate Woodward Bernstein duo). Lorne Greene (TV Star of Bonanza). Martha Mitchell (wife of former Attorney General and Watergate busybody). Katherine Graham (socialite, late owner and publisher, The Washington Post).
I'll add more as I remember them, but in the meantime, I have to admit I'm pretty impressed.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Storm

And so it occurred that a great wind called a derecho came out of nowhere, or so claimed authorities who should know, and this wind tore through the neighborhoods and projects of Virginia, Washington DC and Maryland, inflicting great harm upon rich and poor alike.

Tree limbs crushed cars, and it’s estimated that a dozen-and-a-half folks died from storm-related causes. Electrical wires were torn from poles; raw sewage infiltrated reservoirs and vast areas of Eastern America went dark.  This happened on a Friday night, and the following days saw century-old heat records break by the hour. No air conditioning, no television, no cell phones or landlines. No electricity at all. Community and private pools closed. The lack of power led to shuttered gas stations, restaurants, supermarkets, bars, Starbucks and salad bars. In my area, one service station was open and by 6 a.m. lines of cars wound an eighth of a mile deep. The hallowed weekend leading to July 4th celebrations started a bit early as citizens franticallly lit their barbecues to grill food about to go bad in 100˚ heat.

People, wondrously, reacted in a generally civilized manner.  Where traffic lights were out, most drivers stopped, looked both ways, and proceeded forward with care. There was a rush on ice and toilet paper, the former understandable, the latter not (will 24 rolls of double-ply see you through a week of use?), but it was a polite rush, though some looked askance at those filling their shopping carts with a dozen or more bags of ice. Standing in a long line of coffee seekers, one man hissed and showed his teeth, while a woman bemoaned the lack of Jerusalem artichokes, so necessary to making the quinoa sunchoke pilaf she planned to serve that evening beside the family pool.

All in all, people clenched their jaws and got along.  They slept in their basements on air mattresses, doused themselves with tepid water from garden hoses, sucked down cases of tepid sodas and beers. Those with power invited those without to spend the night. And the only question was, when? Authorities said it might take a week to restore power. No one, it seemed, asked why, or how, such a thing could happen in this, the best country in the world…

But it did happen, as it had a few years before, this time in the winter, and a few years before that when the tail of a hurricane whipped through the East coast and brought the region to its knees. And so the real question is: How is such a lack of preparedness acceptable in the land of the free and the home of etcetera… Really!

Where I live, a few miles from Washington, DC, the traffic is rated third-worst in the country, the area is festooned with telephone poles, and the horizons boast a wilderness of cables running from poles to homes. These cables are routinely damaged by high winds, ice storms, falling trees, drunken drivers, and, on occasion, rats that eat through the insulation and short-circuit whole neighborhoods. The cables do not age well—something about ultraviolet and plastic—and an entire industry was created to replace and hoist them aloft, and patch or splice them when they break. The cables are, essentially, remnants of 19th century technology in a 21st century world. They are part of an infrastructure—roads, bridges, levies, dams and tunnels—that is falling apart beneath our feet and before our very eyes.

Oh, and yes, the 911 system set up by the various communications companies to deal with emergency calls failed too, as did the backups, and the backups to the backups. If you needed an ambulance, a cop, or a fire truck, you were sh*t out of luck.

That all this occurred in an area obsessed with terrorism is darkly humorous, Kafkaesque, one might say. Today’s Washington Post is all a-rant about the shame of it all, and an article explains why we have not buried our cables yet, thereby protecting them from the vagaries of harsh nature. It tells of costs and lack of community willingness, but I think this is nonsense. What we are dealing with here is a singularly unsexy issue based on events that, to date, have not happened frequently enough to really rile the locals.

But this might change. Last year, we had an unheard-of earthquake. We’ve had warm winters where they used to be frigid, and summer temperatures well above the norm. The climactic transformations—call them global warming, melting ice caps, a misdirected El Nino (or Nina)—are increasing, not waning and our abilities to deal with remain at best primitive.

We’re in for interesting times.