Monthly Archives: August 2011

Art Critics In The Corn Field

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The water is back off of the road, I can take my Secret Ninja Route to work, construction crews are busily rebuilding the Vermont infrastructure, and I have word that the MOOver is back on the road between Wilmington and West Dover. All of this lifts and cheers my heart, and allows me to think past the stress and grief of the last week and consider the future.  The moderately immediate future, that is, as I also have word that the local Corn Maze is up, undamaged, and going to be ready for action next week.

While this maze opens on Labor Day, for me, Corn Maze Time is later in the fall, usually in October.  I need to have that chill in the air and the threat of an early nightfall to get my adrenaline pumping.  And why is it important that I should pump adrenaline for a Corn Maze?  Because in addition to being the most Mighty And Awesome Maze of All, this one also offers the Roasted Corn and Cider Donuts of the Gods. One requires an appetite to fully appreciate the experience.  The cider donuts are the stuff of local legends – the farm owns a funky little donut machine that involves a conveyor belt and makes tiny, perfect donuts.  These donuts are almost crispy on the outside, and moist and fluffy on the inside, and they take advantage of the product of the local apple orchards, and well, they’re an experience to be enjoyed, savored, and then looked-forward to for another year.  There’s something about eating corn with the peel still on and used as a handle, roasted right next to the cornfield of its birth, and slathered with fresh lime butter made with milk from the cow down the street.

It is heavenly.

It is also the icing on the cake:  the main event is our Corn Maze.

Before I go any further, I should probably supply some relevant information about my community.  That would be community in a broad sense, because the entire state in which I live is roughly the same size, in acreage and population, as the Houston metro statistical area.  Both are 10,000 and change square miles.  Houston has 5,946,800 denizens, Massachusetts has 6,547,629.  Or, as I have said in the past to my spouse, “Dude, my home town is the same size as your whole state.”  So the notion I have of “community” is a little different, too.  Here, I would consider our “community” to include the towns of Northampton, Williamsburg, Haydenville, Easthampton (but not South or Westhampton), Hadley, Hatfield, Whately, Sunderland, and Amherst (central, North, and South).  I might include South Hadley in there, also possibly Conway, Leverett, and Shutesbury.  This encompasses an area and population roughly the size of the district that supplied students to my high school outside of Houston.

So this “community” has a vastly interesting makeup:  there is a small but significant percentage of individuals with substantial inherited wealth (trust funds) who occupy their time with various charitable and artistic pursuits. There is a small but also significant percentage of professionals who are employed in larger cities, but who prefer to commute (or telecommute) from our Rustic Countryside.  There is a large percentage of individuals involved with agrarian pursuits – dairies, farms, and ranching.  While most of these people represent families who have been working the land in this area for three or four hundred years, there is a small but interesting overlap with group 1, above (the trust fund people).  In addition to this, there are five major colleges or universities, four of them with top-tier reputations, which means that the area is also loaded with Ph.D.s, techies, various white-collar support staff, and students – many of whom grow so fond of the area that they do not wish to leave when they graduate, and they move into the ranks of professionals, techies, farmers, or faculty.  On top of this, many of the trust funds, professors, and students were spawned in the rarefied culture pits of New York City.

All of this leads to a fascinating character for the “community” – which comes to its fullest and brightest fruition in the context of the Corn Maze.  This is not your typical Corn Maze, in the shape of a tractor, or an eagle, or the local high school mascot.  This is a Corn Maze for an area that isn’t sure whether it’s an artist colony, a farm community, or a college town.

The farm that gives us this Maze has been owned, according to their website, by the same family since 1720.  Nearly 300 years, yes, this family has been working this earth.  They are hardly a nest of neurotic aesthetes with artistic pretensions who moved into the area from the Upper West Side or Brooklyn and are imposing their notions of culture upon the rustic locals.  These people are are the rustic locals.

And yet…there is the Corn Maze.  It’s always a Maze with a goal.  There’s a scavenger hunt rolled into it – they have positioned various and sundry stations throughout the Maze, and typically, when you emerge successfully from the Maze with evidence of your accomplishment of the goals of the scavenger hunt, you are rewarded with your Very Own Pumpkin as a prize.  The hunts, as well, are not what one would expect.

My first visit to the Maze was a couple of years ago, and the owners had magically – I do not know how they do this, and after briefly investigating, I decided that I do not really want to know how they do this – created a huge maze with the artistic theme of The Odyssey.  Yes, the ancient Greek epic, written by Homer, the Homer, about Odysseus’ return from the Trojan Wars.  The story with Circe the sorceress who turned shipwrecked sailors into animals, the story where he had to be lashed to the mast to guide the ship through the Sirenes, the story with the Cyclops.  The Maze itself was an artistic rendering of the confrontation between Odysseus and the Cyclops.

It was even better in person!

The white dot there, in the middle of the Cyclops’ eye, is a camera obscura, one that you can actually walk into.  What you don’t see on this picture is the Mighty Potato Cannon, the thunking sounds of which punctuate any intrepid traveler’s journey through the Maze.

The scavenger hunt that year, as I recall, involved stopping at a variety of stations to answer a question about Greek Myths and get back in less than ten years.  Yes.  Demonstrate your knowledge of Greek Heroes and Gods of Antiquity, take home a pumpkin!

Even better was the one I went to last year.  This time – they change it every year – it was in the shape of Andy Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s soup can.  And the scavenger hunt was a combination of Make Your Own Four-Color Process Print…and a quiz over art – several questions of which involved the presentation of two different prints and the question of which one of them was “art” (i.e., originally created as art).

It was unbelievably fun.  At one point, I found myself with my husband and our friend, joining a group of people who were totally unknown to us, and having an extended and fairly informed debate over one of the stations in the quiz.  All of a sudden it hit home that I was, in fact, standing out in the middle of a corn field, debating the Meaning Of Art with a group of strangers.  It was a moment of pure surreality, and one that let me know I had found a weird and unexpected spiritual home.

This year, we are told, the Maze will be in the shape of Noah Webster (of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary fame).  I have my suspicions about what the hunt will involve, and I can hardly wait for it.  Or for the Potato Cannon, and of course, for the Donuts and Corn of the Gods.

Pumpkins

Now I'm all excited thinking about winning a pumpkin in the Corn Maze. They won't be ripe for another couple of weeks, so I'll tide everyone over with this picture I took at one of our fantastic local Farm Stands.

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It’s Strange How This Never Seems To Get Easier

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As a long-time resident of the Texas Gulf Coast, I’ve been through four or five hurricanes and more tropical storms than I have fingers to count on.  Thanks to all of this delicious experience, I know how to read the forecasts, I know how to interpret what the meterologists are saying, and based on that, I know approximately what to expect.  I know how to plan for these things in general, and more than that, I know that when you get named storms in the picture, you will be getting things for which you cannot plan.  That said, I have been in even more floods than I’ve been in named storms, and I know about all the nasty stuff that floods mean.  I’ve never really understood the pictures that every newspaper seems to run of some flower child happily tripping through knee-high water with an umbrella and a giggle.

Some of this is because I am from Texas, and Texas floods tend to have really nasty stuff in them, like alligators, big swarmely balls of fire ants, and pods of angry water moccasins.  Deadly things.  And after that, the list goes on to gasoline, chemicals, raw sewage, broken glass, sharp bits of metal that have been torn off of other things, and busted concrete with sharp edges.  And floods are always the color of hot chocolate, meaning that you don’t actually see any of that stuff, at least not until it bites/stings/slices your skin open…at which point you can compound whatever other misery you are experiencing as a result of the flood and the event that caused the flood with nasty infections from the raw sewage, or poisoning from the chemicals that were released when the flood hit the nearest refinery.

So yes, the flood-happy flower-child has always been a complete mystery to me.  One of the very earliest things that children learn in Texas – right after “do not walk or stand on a patch of grass because the fire ants will swarm you” is “do not go into flood waters, ever.  Do not wade in them, do not play in them, do not take your boat/canoe/innertube/raft/kayak in them.  Leave Them Alone.”   This is added to later in life, by those who wish to live to an age where they can successfully reproduce, “If You Cannot See The Curb, Do NOT Drive Through Water On The Road.”  I actually had cause to do some research into this, and Texas, in a truly Darwinistic sense, leads the nation in Deaths By Flood, with nearly twice the deaths of the second runner-up, California.  It is some 620 over a 30 year period, and the results were annotated to indicate that most of these deaths involved a vehicle (i.e., people driving through water over the road).

As I mentioned in my earlier post, the aftermath of Irene here is troubling for me because of my deep personal attachment to Vermont.  I find it’s always harder to regard visions of damage when they pertain to areas with which I am familiar. Images of the wildfires in west Texas and mudslides in California and tornado and flood destruction in Missouri and North Dakota are very troubling, but they don’t possess the…immediacy…that personal contact…that images of destruction from Katrina, Ike, and Irene have for me.  For some reason, it’s harder for me to look at these things when I recognize the shops, and the roads, and when I’ve got a face to attach.  I stayed at a hotel in New Orleans in January 2005, and got to bring my cat Buster along.  The deal was that I had to cage him or hold onto him while the room was being cleaned, which is only fair.  I thus got to know the maid, a very little, and what I remember about her was that she was afraid of cats, but her name was Kitty, and she found this amusing.  And eight months later when I watched the city be savaged, I kept thinking of her, and knowing that she was not likely to have had a ride out of town, and was probably in the hellhole that the Superdome became.  And as hard as it was to see the pure physical devastation, that little contact doubled the grief I had then.

This action in Vermont is no different.  The pictures you’re seeing come out of the state – I know those roads.  I know those hills.  I’ve eaten at those restaurants.  People who taught me to ski are in there, probably stranded, and definitely hurting.  People who made my beds, who cooked my food, who sold me t-shirts and sunglasses, and skis.  People I chatted up on a lift.  People I had a beer with afterwards.  I don’t know those people well, I don’t know that I could pick them out of a line-up, but we are connected, and that makes this all the more difficult to watch.

These are the parts that never get easier:

The advance notice.  Yes, I deeply appreciate the opportunity to plan, to take whatever action I can…but at a certain point, I’ve done all the planning and taken all the action I can, and the only thing left is to watch the trainwreck start to happen, and to wait for the pain, because that is surely coming.  While this is agonizing, I wouldn’t trade it for the incredible uncertainty that people who live in earthquake zones face – I can’t think of anything more terrifying than being jolted out of a hard sleep to find the house collapsing around my ears with no notice at all.  Even tornadoes – you may not know for sure that a tornado is going to come rip up your neighborhood, but in the places where tornadoes are common, there is usually quite a lot of warning that potentially severe weather is coming, and if you live in those areas, you get to recognize the Signs.  You may be awakened by the siren, but in all likelihood, you went to bed with your clothes on and your shoes nearby because you knew the sirens could well go off.  So while the advance notice is agonizing, it is my preference over the alternatives.

The storm itself.  There’s really nothing like seeing the wind pick up and the breeze frisk around, and knowing that you are in for twenty hours of howling winds, lashing rain, and that at any time you may lose your roof, everything you own, and possibly your life.  It’s like Playing Chicken with God.  Leaving is an option for some – and is mandatory for others – but most people who go through these experiences aren’t in the kind of Super Awesome Number One Danger Zones where evacuations are ordered, nor can we afford to simply hop on a jet and take a vacation until it’s over.  Most of us have to hunker down and do our best.  Listening to the wind scream for three or four minutes is a delightfully chilling thrill, like riding a roller coaster.  Just try it. Listening to it for thirty minutes, or thirty hours, is an entirely different thing.  Listening to that noise, and wondering every time you hear something go BANG whether it’s the roof starting to peel off, or a transformer exploding and starting a fire, or the car starting to float in the floodwaters and slam against the frame of the house, is not fun even once, let alone for thirty hours.  Doing all of this in the pitch dark, because the power has long gone out, is even more thrilling, in a Bad Way.

The aftermath of the storm.  Floods are disgusting.  Nothing, and I mean not even a junkyard or a refinery, smells worse than the nasty mud that a flood leaves behind.  And that mud is damned near impossible to get off of anything.  And floods usually screw up the water supply, so good luck on finding clean water to wash that manky crap off of everything you own.  I am so grateful that I have not had the horrifying experience of having flood waters invade my home, and that my experiences of this strictly involve other people’s property.  It is the most absolutely disgusting thing you can imagine.  There is almost no way that you can get all that mud off before it dries, and when it does dry, it turns into this revolting skin that peels and flakes everywhere.  I really hate floods.  And that is even before we get to the other issues of what floods can do to the infrastructure.  Look at the pictures from Vermont!  Those flood waters peeled the asphalt off the roads in huge chunks.  Consider what it takes to bust up an entire road into 10-foot squares and then move those squares and leave them in piles.  This is ugly, ugly stuff.  And, of course, there are always people who lost some part of their roofs, people who weren’t insured, people who died, it’s just absolutely horrible.

I can’t stop looking at the pictures from Vermont. Partly because I’m still trying to take in the scope of the situation, partly because I have maybe a small, but not zero, frame of reference for what they’re going through.  Partly I have a superstitious feeling that there is some finite amount of trouble, woe, aggravation, and grief in the system, and that if I take a little of that, it means that other people have to have less of it.

But mostly?  I can’t stop looking at these pictures because that should have been me.  Every forecast until that storm was wailing on New Jersey called for the 10 inches of rain that created this devastation in Vermont to fall on the Connecticut River Valley in Massachusetts.  Where I live.  I prepared for three days, expecting that it would be me who had feet of water in the house and no prayer in hell for power in the foreseeable future.  I expected that it would be me who was going to have to go through the wringer with contractors and insurance parties, and to live in grubby squalor for lack of clean water and eat cold food when I could get it.  I cannot shake this sensation, because I understood at the time what the risks were.  It should have been our streets in Northampton, not the streets of Brattleboro, that turned into a raging river.  It should have been us. Yes, we dodged the bullet in a huge way.  But they didn’t, and they couldn’t.  It’s not that I feel guilty, but I do feel like there’s some kind of cosmic debt.  There’s a credit on my balance sheet.  And so, I look at the pictures, and I make donations to the Red Cross, and I grieve their losses.  It somehow feels like the least I can do.

Here, then, is my Shout Out to Windham County, Vermont.  This time will come to an end, and the beauty and harmony will be restored.This may not be the year we can drive up to enjoy the splendors of your autumn, but we will be back as soon as the roads will permit.  In the meantime, here is what I am holding in my memory and heart for you:*

Still Life, Vermont

Autumn Seeds 1

Autumn in Vermont 4

Autumn in Vermont 2

Autumn in Vermont 3

*All of these photographs are my own original work.

Oy, Gevalt. Oy Vey Iz Mir.

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Really, there are some times when English just isn’t the Right Language for the moment.  Sometimes, only Yiddish – the language of a people all too familiar with catastrophic losses and grieving – will do.  Now would be one of those times.

Once a storm passes in Texas, you fall into one of three groups:  someone who has suffered a major loss and can think only of recovery (or possibly, can only sit and weep), a friend/family of someone who has suffered a major loss but who has not done so yourself, and everyone else.  The job of the first two groups is clear: desperately try to put things back together, somehow, and get through the next day.  The job of the third group, as far as I can tell, is to load the car/SUV/pickup truck/little red wagon up and go Inspect the Devastation.

Since my house managed to dodge the bullet on round one for major losses, and the dust on round two isn’t due to settle for another 36 hours or so, we fell into the third group.  The Connecticut, which is really our Local Flood, is a work in progress, and the part of it that is closest to us isn’t doing anything tremendously interesting yet other than rising like crazy and developing ginormous snags and rafts of lumber, branches, trees, and other detritus against the bridge pilings.  So we piled into the car to go Look At The Flood.  We had information that the Deerfield River, a little to the north of us, had flooded (Oy Vey, more on that below).  In fact, it flooded to the extent that the interstate had been closed down, so that’s where we went.  We figured, cross no barriers, interfere with no work trucks, and stay out of the way otherwise.  And get a load of what was going on.

We were on our way up Route 5 and 10 with not many signs of a flood, or massive wind damage for that matter, in sight.  As we headed out of Deerfield, we drove through a cloud of dust raised by other cars.

“What the heck is this stuff?” I said.  My husband ventured the opinion that it was some kind of construction dust.  No.  It was too fine for that.  Too…powdery.

And that’s when it hit me.  It was silt.  The road we were driving on had been underwater yesterday, and probably through this morning.  Thank heavens that the air behind the storm was dry – that is one of the best things we have going for us – and the river, which is ordinarily nowhere near the road had receded and evaporated.  We hit several more patches like that before we saw the water.  I think we were looking at a golf course, but there was really no way to be sure.  There were, however, many many many cars headed in the opposite direction from our route.  Ordinarily this is a back road, it’s scenic, with many of the Farm Stands I love so much, but it’s not what you’d call highly traveled.  Today, it was.

And it was, because the southbound traffic from I-91 was being detoured along this route, as the interstate was still closed.

“Hmm” we said, “let us see if we can get back home without sitting through this massive traffic jam.” and off we headed down Route 2 towards Shelburne Falls.

Shelburne Falls is an absolutely lovely little village on the Deerfield River.  There are lots of artists, several charming markets, an interesting geographical feature (the glacial Potholes), and the Famous Bridge of Flowers.

This is also not my picture. This is someone else’s picture of the Famous Bridge of Flowers. It blooms all summer long and is a favorite walk of, basically, everyone who sees it.

We love Shelburne Falls, and we go up there several times a year to walk around and enjoy ourselves.  It’s a friendly, lovely little place.

Which is why it was distressing and astonishing to see this.

That’s a view of the same glacial potholes shown above in a more peaceful moment.

And here, sadly, is the Famous Bridge of Flowers, now closed indefinitely

This is not my picture either. It came from WWLP news.  I would have been too sad to take a picture if I’d had my camera.

Now, all this is bad enough.  And on our way back we saw that the Connecticut has, as predicted, started to overflow its banks and inundate some farms.  I know with some part of my brain that rivers are supposed to flood and that this is why river-bottom farmland is so good, but the other part of my brain recognizes that late August is not when this is supposed to happen, and that I am seeing real lives being affected, and not in a good way, by all that water.

This stuff is worth an Oy Gevalt. What launches it into the Land of Oy Vey Iz Mir for me is the knowledge that every damned drop of the water thundering through Shelburne Falls, where the river is wide and the dams are mostly intact, came first from Vermont, a place where the hills are steep and the rivers are narrow.   A place even less fitted to handle large volumes of water than the Pioneer Valley.

In particular, the water I was looking at – before it devastated parts of Shelburne Falls – devastated the entire town of Wilmington, VT.  Wilmington VT has the distinction of being a terribly cute classic Vermont Country Town, yes.  It has the distinction of being positioned at a major intersection between two of New England’s most scenic drives, VT 9 and the famous Vt 100.  It has the distinction of serving as the local town for my favorite ski area ever, Mount Snow.  It has the distinction of sporting the Maple Leaf brew pub, and Dot’s Diner, one of the Great American Treasures, a tiny little diner overlooking, yes, the Deerfield River, and serving the best damned onion rings on the planet, berry berry pancakes that were written up in the late, lamented Gourmet Magazine, and meatloaf better than anything that ever came from your mother’s kitchen.  Or your own, and that includes my  kitchen, and I make one mean meatloaf.  It also has, or had, the nicest, friendliest waitstaff and cooks, and they’d make you a milkshake to die for. It’s in the old Wilmington Post Office, a building that has been there since 1832.

Here is someone else’s picture of Dot’s.

But here is what Dot’s looks like after that blasted storm, and what the Deerfield River spent it’s Sunday doing.

This is not my picture. WordPress doesn’t seem to like linking to FB photos. You can find the original at https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=2274496418572&set=a.2272103958762.129425.1133521629&type=1&theater

And here is a picture of our Great American Treasure getting thoroughly trashed Sunday morning:

This is also not my picture. You can find the original at http://www.reformer.com/localnews/ci_18785422

Someone opened up a FB album to hold all the photos of the devastation in Wilmington and surrounding areas.  I recognized every square foot of about 75% of those pictures, because I have a season pass to Mount Snow, and in the winter, I’m up there twice a week when school’s in session, and more frequently when it’s not.  It’s beautiful, beautiful country, populated with lovely, friendly people…many of whom are now homeless, have had their livelihoods decimated, and who can’t even drive themselves out, because as you can see from the second-to-last shot above, the roads have been absolutely trashed.

These scenes are being repeated all over Vermont.  It just seems so bloody unfair that a landlocked mountainous state can be completely devastated by a freaking tropical storm.   There’s just something terribly wrong about this.  Covered bridges that are hundreds of years old have been washed away.  Killington apparently lost their entire base lodge in a mudslide.  It’s not just buildings, it’s not just people – this area is dense with dairy farms of sweet, clean, picturesque ice-cream cows, and big hairy horses that pull sleighs for riding in the winter.

It is so horrible that words, or at least English words, fail me.

Oy vey iz mir.  And Oy vey iz Vermont.

No pictures of mine today.  I don’t have the heart for it.

Now The Sky Is Getting Hacked Up By Chainsaws…

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At my house we weathered the storm with a relative minimum of excitement. I say “minimum” because we did lose power briefly (but had it restored almost immediately), we did get water in the basement (but not a lot), and the street started to flood (but then the rain slacked off before water came boiling up out of the sewer grates). My tomatoes are battered, but the staking seems to have held up. We are having to pay cash for most purchases, as I expected, because the data lines required to process credit card transactions haven’t been brought back up.

We’re not entirely out of the woods yet, because as anyone who watched the Katrina disaster start to unfold on this date six years ago, sometimes the biggest problems don’t come while the storm is passing over, it can come well after the fact.  This is likely to be the problem here, too.  We did get a lot of trees, branches, and debris down, and many areas around us lost power for what I am certain felt like forever, but the second shoe has yet to fall.  The storm moved north of us into Vermont and continued dumping massive amounts of rain, which has gone into their rivers and created some truly nasty flash flooding, but is ultimately going to wind up in the Connecticut River – which runs right next to my town.  We, in town, are somewhat protected from this kind of thing by levees, but as we all know, levees can fail or be surmounted by water.  This happened right here in 1936, drowning the side of town I live on.  The projections for the flooding over the next couple of days aren’t for the levels that breeched the levees in ’36, but they do involve substantial flooding for the nearby farms and farming towns.

My heart breaks for these farmers.  Farming is an incredibly hard, dirty, dangerous, risky job – and these farmers undertake that basket of trouble for the good of the rest of us.  A fine place we’d be in if we had no farmers.  For that matter, a fine place we’d be in if we had no small farmers, which is the kind that we have around here.  Frankly, I do not want to live in the world where all of my food comes from vast industrial farms using God-only-knows-what kind of toxic crap that is being steamrollered out of the chemical labs at Monsanto.  For pete’s sake, they just realized, now, after fifteen years of deploying GMO corn, that Round-Up causes birth defects.  Or rather, given the kind of frightening shenanigans to which Monsanto has been prone in the past, they may well have known this all along, and only just now not been able to prevent the news from getting out.  So, no thanks.  I’d like the small farmer to stay in business and – I am hopeful – thrive.

The weather we’ve had this year is hardly conducive – we had a very cool June, a baking dry July, a super-wet August, and now some considerable portion of the crops that are getting close to harvest are going to be sent under water from a tropical storm.  In Massachusetts.  This is insane, and it’s sad.  I don’t know a lot about farming at all, and I’m really hoping that these guys will be able to take some kind of measures to prevent the crops – including the cigar-wrapping tobacco crops that are currently drying in the barns – from being destroyed.

As for me, I’m not going to return my papers and such to the basement until Thursday, when the water is supposed to start going down, just in case.

Right now, I’m hearing the Sweet Sound of Storm Recovery – a sound with which I am well familiar from decades living on or near-enough to the Texas Gulf Coast:  it’s the Dulcet Tones of the Buzzing Chainsaw, as people get out to clean up the wood that came down yesterday.  What I wasn’t familiar with from my years in Texas was the Sweet Sound of Storm Preparation, also the Song of the Buzzing Chainsaw.  I don’t think I’d ever heard that one before, which seems odd, because it’s really so much better when you know a storm is coming, to go out and bring down any questionable boughs, rather than waiting for them to be brought down and flung through the air to impact your windows.  It seems like such a simple thing to do this, but my recollection of storm prep from my years at home doesn’t include this.  It includes a lot of long lines at the gas station and the grocery store, it includes people bringing home fuel for the chainsaws they expected to need after the storm, but I think the first time I actually saw people preparing for a storm by bringing down tree limbs was at Disney in 2004.

I am certain that that preparation, in addition to everyone religiously scouring their yards and homes for stuff that could go flying, is why we escaped having more damage here.  The warning went out, virtually everyone heeded it and did what was necessary, and the storm damage was reduced.  This is what the warnings are for.

What I’m waiting for and hoping that I won’t find is a crowd of yahoos who see that the storm damage wasn’t worse, and start criticizing the media for “hyping” it and the NWS for sowing panic.  It won’t occur to these people that the damage wasn’t worse because of the warnings and prep, they’re going to assume that the damage wasn’t worse because the storm wasn’t as bad as they said.  It was.  It was pretty much exactly as predicted, and went pretty much exactly where it was predicted.  The predictions were off in terms of the precise timing, but even then, the predictions were for it to start getting bad in the morning, and to keep on being bad until midnight.  And that’s exactly what happened – it didn’t get bad and stay bad because these kind of storms are organized in little rings, and there’s a gap between the rings that gives a lull, but when I went to bed last night at 11pm, the wind was ramping right up again, just as predicted.

But the facts aren’t going to get in the way of the convictions of this group that they’ve been used like chumps.  Honestly, I don’t actually care if people employ bad logic and muddy thinking and get ticked off about stuff as a result.  The part where I care is when that perspective gets entrenched, and next time we get a storm like this on the forecast, people saying “It wasn’t so bad last time, I’m not going to waste any time doing anything this time.”  And they won’t prepare, and next time, because everyone hasn’t prepared, we will have a lot of unnecessary damage.  It only takes one house leaving the windchimes, and the bird feeder, and the patio furniture, and the kids’ toys outside in the driveway to damage houses on the entire block.  It only takes one family refusing to leave an evacuation zone to endanger the lives of the rescue team.  This kind of thing I did see, in spades, in Texas.  You can still see it now if you hit YouTube and search for videos of Hurricane Ike.  And, heaven help them, many of the people who did not evacuate New Orleans stayed there because they had no transportation out of town…but many others, extended family of mine included, stayed because they considered the risks to be “hype” and weren’t going to be used as chumps by The Man again.

The NWS has no ulterior motive for Mind Control.  They’re performing a public service, and if they’re giving you some kind of alert, watch, or warning, it’s because you’re in a risky situation. They don’t have a crystal ball, but they do have pretty decent forecasting models. It’s better to make preparations that could turn out to have been unnecessary than it is to not make preparations that you needed.  Sheesh.  If your local authorities think you should evacuate, it’s because there’s a good chance you’ll need to, and if you did need to and didn’t do it, you could die, or someone else could die while trying to save you. It’s not because the mayor and city council want to come loot your house while you’re gone, and not because they have a vested interest in pushing you around and making you do inconvenient things.  And the prep that is less troublesome than evacuation?  Please.  How hard is it to stow all your stuff in the garage, on a porch, or inside the house?

We really need to do a better job, in general, of helping each other out.  Almost 2,000 people died in Katrina, and none of them would have died if they hadn’t still been there. All those who were in a position to leave, but got cranky about it, see point 2, above.  This comment is about the rest of them, the ones who would have left if they could have.  There has to be a better way of handling things than to just leave the sick and the poor behind to die.  I don’t know what that better way is, but I remain convinced that it exists.

I will never forget the last week of August, 2005.  I watched a city I love be murdered and left to die. I cried for days, watching that devastation on TV, all the time aware of the devastation that wasn’t being shown on TV because it would have been too much for people to handle.  At the same time, I was thankful that I didn’t have to handle the stuff that wasn’t being shown.

And right now, I’m thankful that – whatever happens next time – this time people attended the warnings and we all got off the lighter because of it.

Grapevines

It's the anniversary of Katrina, which is a sad, sad day. But it's also late August, which means it's almost time for the vendange, so here's a picture of some lovely grapes from Sonoma to cheer us up.

Well, The Sky Really Is Falling, Now…

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Holy cow. The last two days have been absolutely exhausting!  The last time I went through a Tropical Event was Charlie, I think in 2003, in Orlando, and there wasn’t any “getting ready” for it because 1) its appearance in central Florida was a complete surprise to everyone including the meterologists, and 2) I was at Disneyworld in a hotel, and not going anywhere even if I had wanted to.  So I let Disney “get ready for it.”  I wish I could have done that this time, too.  Disney’s logistics are unsurpassed, and they have absolute armies of bodies to direct at various tasks.  We did have about 18 hours notice on the storm, and the entire place was swarmed by Maintenance Ants taking down anything that might fly, pruning the heck out of trees that might drop branches, and getting ready in every other imaginable way.  I don’t think we even lost power in that storm, and the afternoon after it passed through, we were watching a movie at Downtown Disney as if nothing had happened.  Of course, it did basically flatten a lot of the airport, and we had to drive to Jacksonville to get out, which is when we learned that Vital Lesson:  always fill your gastank before it hits, because after the power is knocked out everywhere but Disney, most of the pumps won’t work, and for stations with ancient equipment where the pumps do work, they’ve been drained for chainsaws, generators, and four-wheel vehicles.

Since, despite my desires, I do not have Disney on-call to fix this stuff up for me, I had to take care of it by myself.  I did have some help from my guy, but since he’s using our experience with Charlie (a small but intense, fast-moving storm) as a baseline upon which to formulated his expectations, his input was not as useful as it might have been.  His shining moment has been doing – and finishing – the absolute mountain of laundry with which we returned from Maine.  Since our washer and dryer are in the basement, which I expect to experience Water at some point, this is not trivial. He was at it positively all day on Saturday.  His second contribution – non trivial – was in locating and procuring two five-pound bags of ice with which we can turn our freezer into an ice chest when the power goes down.  Which – at this point – the National Weather Service is telling us directly is a matter of when and not will.

For the last two days, I have been grocery shopping like a demon, laying in gallons of water, batteries, bungee hooks (for trash cans and other potential aerial missiles), bringing in the detritus around the house, performing a Public Information Officer for the other people living in our building, only one of which has personally experienced a Tropical Event before.  She’s from Miami, and has been through hell and back on this front, and I’ve been grateful for the backup.  Because – as always seems to happen – we did have a small contingent of the it won’t happen here folk.  The ones who are certain that the media is over-hyping things, etc.  Not that the media doesn’t do this, but this storm is so damned big that when the astronauts on the space station took a video of it, you can actually see it curving with the earth. It’s not really possible to “over” hype something like that.  Also, my grasp of risk management indicates that even if you consider the probability of a negative outcome to be small, if the outcome would be catastropic if it did occur and you were unprepared, you. prepare. for. it.

Zzzooo.  I spent yesterday morning cooking for four or five days, making soups that can be served at any temperature, and making the Fritatta of the Gods.  This would be the recipe I provided in my last post, only doubled or tripled.  The bloody thing is three inches thick if it’s a millimeter.  AND we had to bring stuff up from the basement, AND tidy the outside again AND stake the heck out of the tomatoes with velcro and prayer. AND put the cars in the municipal garage where they will be (I hope) safe from flying debris and rising waters.  I was also very happy to hear the roar of chainsaws around my neighborhood, as sensible people took down branches rather than leaving them to fall.

Ah.  Now there’s the rub.  Rising Waters. NWS is telling us to expect a flood because, duh, we’re getting the biggest and slowest moving tropical storm that anyone has seen in decades, and the ground here is already saturated because we’ve had a very wet August. And me, I’m thinking, OK, 3 inches of water in the basement.  What a PITA that will be.

We started to get the little outlying rain bands yesterday afternoon.  Just a tease, really.  The rain started in earnest several hours ago.  But the center of circulation is still far off enough that we’re not getting any wind.  It’s hot, sticky, wetter than water, and flat calm.  Creepy, in a way, like being in the Eye is.  My friend who is staying for the Duration and I took advantage of the Calm Before The Storm to take her dog for a walk.  I got a chance to check out the Storm Sewer Action, and…urk…aagh…let’s just say I spontaneously and dramatically revised my expectations for what kind of water to expect.  The sewers – even at that point – were already running 18″ below the grate, and they were absolutely thrumming with the volume of water that was moving through them.  Parking lots were already starting to get standing water. Now the bottom of my street is getting standing water. “Ponding” I believe is what the weather service calls this.  And – crud – the wind still hasn’t kicked in.  NWS thinks it will start in a few hours, and then things are going to be very nasty.

Per their update yesterday afternoon, the NWS gave us the Final Warning, and said that “Final preparations should already be underway” and reminded us that by the time the wind starts up, it will be Too Late.  The latest updates don’t mention “preparations” at all, and just warn us that anything outside that is not tied down is going to become airborne and destructive, and – this kills me – actually said right out that the power lines are going to be coming down. Period. Not like this is a surprise.  Verizon’s cell network started to go Ka-Blooey by 4pm yesterday, and Sprint’s data net has been mostly out of commission in this area since yesterday at 5.  I haven’t even bothered to turn the phone on this morning, because I can’t imagine that this situation is going to get better.  The power company sent out an e-mail last night to all their customers telling us that they have as many people on hand and on call as possible and that they’ll be dealing with the problems that they expect to arise as quickly as humanly possible.  I’m sure they will, too.  I have huge respect for anyone who winds up in a cherry picker during a storm.  It’s not a job I’d be willing to do, and I’m deeply, unspeakably grateful, that there are people who will.

I really hope my street doesn’t go under water. I really hope that the Connecticut River doesn’t breach the levee.  I hope that no one here dies.  School was supposed to start on Monday, but the administration dealt with that decisively and sent out an e-mail saying that unless you were living in the residence halls already – this is move-in weekend – or working for the residence halls, food service, or physical plant, please do not present yourself on campus before Tuesday.  I can’t imagine the chaos that must be going down with thousands of students trying to move in to the zillions of colleges that populate this area, or what it means for the administrators.  I’m glad my job is just to show up and teach.  I hope that will happen on Tuesday.

Here comes the wind. I thought it would start small and then get big, but that isn’t what is happening.  It’s come on in a blast.  The power lines outside my window are thrumming like the strings of a guitar, and the tree out front is already loosing leaves.  We just had a gust that I could feel come up through the floor.  Not around the window, but the wind got into the framing of the house.

In the meantime, here is my recipe for Hurricane Chowder.  Keep some in the fridge and heat it on the gas stove when the power goes out. Freeze it in blocks and then eat it as it thaws.

Hurricane Chowder (with a red pepper cream)

For the red pepper cream:
2 large red bell peppers
2 T fresh oregano leaves
1 t ground chipotle or other hot pepper
1 T olive oil
½ t salt
4 T heavy cream

For the chowder:
2 bacon (or turkey bacon) slices, chopped
2 stalks celery, finely diced
1 yellow onion, finely diced
4 C chicken broth
1 lb red new potatoes, diced
2 T fresh thyme leaves
1 bay leaf
½ t salt
½ t freshly ground pepper
2 C milk, warmed up
Kernels from 6 ears of corn

Broil or grill the peppers until they are blackened on every side, then put into a paper bag and fold the top over to seal it. Let sit 10 minutes, then cool under running water and rub to remove the skins.  Remove the stems and cores. Chop and puree in a blender or food processor. Add the oregano, ground chili, olive oil and salt and. Pulse the processor to puree while pouring in the cream. Puree the mixture, drizzling in the cream.

Put the bacon into a heavy soup pot and warm it over medium-low heat.  If you use turkey bacon, you will need to add a couple of spoonfuls of olive oil to the pot as well.  Cook until the bacon is getting crispy. Turn the heat up to medium high and add the celery and onion to the pot and sauté 5 to 6 minutes. Turn the heat up to high and add the broth. Bring to a boil, stirring to scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Add the potatoes, thyme, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to low and cook until the potatoes are just tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Add the milk and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the corn and simmer another 5 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and discard. Stir the red pepper cream into the pot of chowder, and serve hot, if you can.

Jacuzzi

For purposes of distraction, here is a picture from Sonoma.