03 Sep

Water Rising

NPR Voice: Joining us today is British Scholar Michael Wright, Adjunct Professor of Cultural Studies at Northwestern Acadamy in Hillshire Farms, New South Wales. Professor Wright’s latest book is titled Calling It Like It Is: Media Attention and Natural Disasters. Dr. Wright, welcome to the show. This book is really an examination of fear, isn’t it?

Dr. Wright: Yes, absolutely. When I was a little boy, I fell down a well and was trapped there for three hours.

NPR Voice: Like that guy in The DaVinci Code?

Dr. Wright: Yes, exactly. It was terrifying. And to this day, I suffer from major claustrophobia. Is it because small spaces will do me more harm than, say, the edge of a cliff or a the open sea or a house fire? No. Just this past week, there was this dreadful hot air balloon accident. Did you hear about this?

NPR Voice: Yes, in British Columbia.

Dr. Wright: Right. And I can’t tell you how many people told me they would never go up in a hot air balloon. Well, I wonder how many of those same people would drive their cars through flood water. Have you ever compared the statistics of hot air balloon deaths to flood deaths?

NPR Voice: I can’t say that I have.

Dr. Wright: Well, it’s pretty alarming. In fact, if you go to comparison.com and then click on “hot air balloon versus floods,” you’ll be amazed. People say we fear the unknown. Well, that’s true, but we also fear the known. In fact, it’s the intersection of the known and unknown that really scares us.

NPR Voice: You say in your book that floods are the most deadly natural disaster. Do we need to fear floods more?

Dr. Wright: I think we do. Part of the reason floods are so deadly is that they’re not as explosive and sensational as a shooting or a plane crash. And the problem is two-fold. To begin with, floods are big, quiet predators. They creep up relatively slowly; they don’t occur very often — on a nationwide scale, they do, but most towns in the US don’t suffer from annual flooding; and they get in the way of all of your escape routes. Once someone has been consumed by a flood, it’s almost impossible to rescue him.

NPR Voice: So part of it is just the nature of flooding.

Dr. Wright: Absolutely. They are inherently dangerous. But the other part of the problem is our lack of respect for flood conditions, a problem which is aggravated by media reporting.

NPR Voice: And you call this an “innocent problem.” What do you mean by that?

Dr. Wright: I simply mean that we can’t necessarily fault the media for this. Typically, when you see photos or footage of floods, you’re looking at the quiet aftermath. You see a town submerged in still water. Or you see a truck floating down a river. It’s nearly impossible to convey the real terror of being caught atop your vehicle as water levels rise around you.

NPR Voice: But earlier you mentioned plane crashes. There too, we’re only seeing the aftermath.

Dr. Wright: Yes, but the aftermath of a plane crash is not quite as calm. Water is a soothing as it is destructive, and so, when we see a residential neighborhood with its streets full of water, it’s not the same as looking at the charred carcass of an airplane, which is never a soothing image. And if we examine media outside of the newsy, nonfiction realm, then we see any number of vividly imagined plane crashes depicted by skilled actors. Think about it. In movies and on television, how many times have you seen a plane crash scene versus how many times have you seen a flood scene?

NPR Voice: You propose a flood awareness ad campaign that employs some scare tactics. You think we should have some ads that dramitize the terrors of floods.

Dr. Wright: Yes.

NPR Voice: And you’ve founded the League for the Prevention of Flood Deaths through Scare Tactics. LPFDST, for short.

Dr. Wright: I have.

NPR Voice: I think back to Michael Moore’s film “Bowling for Columbine,” and his basic thesis, which was that we’re a nation of fear, and due to that fear, we end up also being a nation of excessive violence. Are you adding to the culture of fear?

Dr. Wright: We fear the wrong things. Most people are more willing to drive through a foot of floodwater than they are willing to drive through a poor, black neighborhood in the nearest big city. So on the one hand, I would say no, I’m not adding to the culture of fear. But I may indeed be capitolizing on it. The fact is, scare tactics work. The most effective anti-drug campaigns are the edgy ones that show the terrors of drugs. And many a religious revival was aided by the threat of hell. Though I’m not here to condemn people to hell, I guess I agree with the philosophy that if it saves lives, a little fear is a good thing.

01 Sep

The School at Night

The earliest memory I have of it is kind of vague and spotty (like one of those abstract dreams where shapes are getting BIGGER! I had such a recurring nightmare as a kid, and that’s all the dream consisted of — things getting bigger. The biggening was accompanied by a “nananananana” like the sound effect used in The Bionic Man TV shows. Some creepy shit. But vague and spotty.). I’m surrounded by adults — my mother, my teachers, the principal — and they’re all trying to make the night into a fun experience, but it’s totally see-through. Kids know, of course, that none of the adults really want to be in the school at night, schmoozing with each other, smiling fake smiles, sitting in those too-small chairs. Kids know. Not on a conscious, intellectual level, necessarily, but they know nonetheless.

My second memory is from high school. I’d just finished up some work for the yearbook, and I was the last one to leave the yearbook office. It must have been eight or nine o’clock. (The trust they placed in me was incredible.) When I walked out of the building, down the 400 wing, past the guidance office and administrators’ offices, and then down the 800 wing and out the door, I was literally the only person in the school. Sure, there may have been a custodian around somewhere, but for all intents and purposes, I was alone. And as I began my walk down the hallways, strange in the fact that they were illuminated exclusively by the electric overhead lights, I started to run. And it turned into a sprint. And because it was dark outside, the window-lined hallways were more tunnel-like than usual, so my sprinting felt really fast. Past lockers, windows, doors, I was flying. And it was triumphant, exhilirating.

These days, being in school at night is not at all triumphant. It’s a symbol of obligation, a mark of submitting to the demands of work. Don’t get me wrong. I like teaching. The job’s more often good than it is bad. But as with any job, it’s occasionally a little oppressive. There are times when you are working long past when you want to be working. And if I’m in school at night, I am working long past when I want to be working.

At some point in the first month of school, we host “Go to school night,” which serves as an opportunity for parents to walk through their child’s daily schedule, meet the teachers, see the classrooms, and get an overall sense of the maze of hallways these kids have to navigate everyday. About a third of all parents show up. Some come as couples. Some come separately, divorcees who sit on the opposite sides of the classroom. We teachers give ten minute presentations to those who show up and then a bell rings and we shoo them all out of our rooms, which is where they belong — out of the room. It’s interesting to see their faces, the origins of their children’s faces; I can often name their kids before they introduce themselves. But who can deny that they are there in part to judge us? And isn’t it unnerving when you are standing before a small crowd of people who have come to see for themselves how cool or smart or strange you are?

My final memory is one that comforts me at these moments when I feel least triumphant. It’s from Ecuador, when I was teaching English classes at night, and I’d see my own reflection in the windows at the far end of the room. I could be writing on the whiteboard and I’d catch a glimpse of myself. Or I could be circulating around the room helping students with some exercise (conjugating verbs or forming questions, maybe). And it was always a little alarming to see myself in that dilapidated room, asking my students how many apples they have, or pointing to a desk and saying, “What is this?” My reflection was a constant declaration: “You are here. You are doing this.” But occasionally, I’d walk straight toward my reflection — when students were working in groups together, or if they were taking a quiz — something that didn’t require my direction. And as I got closer to my image in the window, it would begin to fade slowly, until, inches from the glass, I could look beyond it to the nighttime cityscape and the lights flickering on the mountainside. It was then that I’d remember what a teacher needs to remember always: “This is not about you.”